Volunteer mediators help decrease court caseload

Tim Farley / The Transcript

Kathy King, program director of Cleveland County's Early Settlement program, said a new round of mediation training is set Jan. 6-7 at the University of Oklahoma Law School. Deadline to register is Thursday.

Resolving disputes between families, strangers or business professionals is a joy for Cleveland County mediation volunteer Judy Knapp.

At the same time, it's a public service that benefits the county's judicial system.

"I've done lots of volunteering, but this is the most rewarding because we help people come together," said Knapp, a Norman resident.

Knapp is one of about 20 county residents who have been trained and provide free mediation services to people involved in small claims, civil or divorce cases filed in Cleveland County District Court.

A new round of mediation training is set Jan. 6-7 at the University of Oklahoma Law School for anyone who's interested, said Kathy King, program director of Cleveland County's Early Settlement program.

For the most part, Knapp has handled family and small claims cases, although she quickly says, "There is no such thing as a small claim because people need their money whether it's the landlord or the tenant."

Now, Knapp handles anywhere from one to four family law cases per month, which involves helping the two sides come to an agreement on issues such as custody and visitation.

"There are families that work [custody and visitation] out just fine and there are others who have to meet at a police station or restaurant because it's a public place," she said.

As a volunteer mediator, Knapp doesn't make the decisions for the two parties. She facilitates the discussion and offers suggestions so they can reach a compromise.

"The decisions are made by the people and then once a judge signs off on it, it becomes legally binding," she said.

Cleveland County District Judge Jeff Virgin often sends divorce and family law cases to mediation in the name of judicial efficiency.

"That's where I've seen the most success," he said. "[Mediation] certainly helps with the caseload we have as judges. Getting cases resolved in mediation is just as good as getting it resolved in front of a judge, plus they [parties] have more input in the outcome."

If agreements can't be reached by the two sides, the case is returned to the judge.

Incoming Cleveland County Chief District Judge Thad Balkman also praised the mediation program for its usefulness in resolving cases without a taxpayer-funded trial.

"Oklahoma is very fortunate to have a statewide mediation program to serve all Oklahomans at no cost," he said. "I typically order the disputing parties to mediation in an effort to see if they can resolve their conflict prior to a trial. The Early Settlement program is a great tool in a judge's toolbox to help manage our dockets."

The two sides can choose between the free mediation program or a private, for-fee mediator, but more people are choosing the cost-effective Early Settlement program.

"The Early Settlement mediation staff is very user friendly," Balkman said. "I receive a mediation report from the Early Settlement office stating if the mediation occurred and if there was a partial or total agreement or if there was no agreement."

More mediation volunteers are needed to handle the high volume of cases judges send to the program. Cleveland County has about 20 volunteers while an estimated 300 serve the entire state, King said.

The program is a proven success story with a 70% resolution rate during the 2018-2019 fiscal year. The Early Settlement program is operated by the Administrative Office of the Courts and trained mediators are certified by the Oklahoma Supreme Court.

Typically, the volunteers are professional people who are newly retired and "want to give back to the community," King said. "Our volunteers frequently report that mediating is a personally rewarding and life-changing experience."

The initial round of training involves civil, small claims and real estate cases. Later, volunteers can be trained in family law cases. Volunteers, once certified by the Supreme Court, must provide 20 hours of their time during a two-year period.

Typically, small claims mediations last less than an hour and family law cases can last half a day.

"The early settlement mediation is in every county and is an alternative to the busy court system," King said. "It's the best kept secret in Oklahoma. You can literally bring anything to mediation. We had a woman who didn't like the job her dentist did. You have neighbor disputes, boundary line arguments or barking dogs."

People interested in next month's training should contact the Early Settlement office at 366-0640 or kathy.king@oscn.net no later than Thursday.

Tim Farley



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