Court-connected mediation in Massachusetts another casualty of tough economy

A door to justice closes in Massachusetts courtsIn news that has stunned the alternative dispute resolution community in Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Trial Court has terminated its mediation contracts with programs approved to provide services in courts throughout the Commonwealth.

This move comes in response to the decision by Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick to order deep cuts in the state budget to offset a projected revenue shortfall of roughly $1 billion. Mediation programs are but one more casualty of the fiscal crisis Massachusetts, like many other states around the U.S., currently faces.

As a mediator — particularly one who devoted time to promoting the use of court-connected ADR as a member of the Trial Court Standing Committee on Dispute Resolution — I feel this blow acutely. It dismays me to see mediation devalued in this way. It is, in Massachusetts at least, expendable not essential.

Fortunately, elsewhere in the U.S., courts are ramping up their commitment to ADR, not downsizing it. Examples include foreclosure mediation programs rolled out in New Jersey, Ohio, and Florida.

How disappointing to learn that Massachusetts, the place where ADR pioneer Frank Sander had his vision of the multi-door courthouse, has elected to slam shut one doorway to justice.

5 responses to “Court-connected mediation in Massachusetts another casualty of tough economy

  1. This is disheartening news indeed. In Ontario, where I live, there have fortunately been no indications of a comparable move. There are two vehicles for court based mediation here: court-connected family mediation that is strictly voluntary–this provides access to lower income clients as mediation fees are based on income and may be as low as $5.00 an hour; and, mandatory mediation of civil litigation matters–compulsory for any civil action with fees not based on income. As long as the provincial government is convinced that the net savings to the justice system is greater than the program costs for mediation, I suppose there will be no change. But I wouldn’t necessarily bank on it!

  2. Arnold, I appreciate your comment. I hope that court-connected mediation in Ontario will remain unaffected and not share our fate. This is just one more sign of the times…

  3. Diane, I share your disappointment. This very short-sighted decision will, unfortunately, have long lasting impact on our profession as well as the courts. Where else will the court find such passionate, loyal yet cheap labor to manage the its backlogs?

    On the bright side, maybe this will act as a wake up call to mediation programs and mediators who failed to diversify their client base or market sufficiently in the private sector. We can either adapt to the new market conditions or perish.

  4. Thanks, Dina, for taking time to comment. I would hope that few mediators in Massachusetts depended financially on the courts as a revenue stream — hardly a sound business practice.

    But I agree with your point about “loyal yet cheap labor”. That’s a whole other issue and one that I didn’t address in this post — the exploitation and devaluation of mediation services by the courts. What other professionals are expected to provide services to the state for little or no remuneration? It’s going to take a revolution to change the long-standing practice of utilizing volunteer, pro bono mediation services in courts — and that revolution will have to take place within mediation programs and among mediators themselves. I’m not suggesting that mediators — or any other professional for that matter — abandon all pro bono work. Giving back and supporting communities are laudable goals. But we need to make sure at the same time that the professional services that mediators provide are valued adequately.

    I hope that the mediation programs affected go on strike or find some other effective and highly visible way to let the powers that be know that this move is a giant step backward for public justice. The courts and the public benefited greatly from the services these programs provided, and canceling these contracts serves no one well. Given the current economic climate, I suppose reinstatement of the contracts with a 100% increase is out of the question, but maybe some day…

  5. Diane,

    A particularly sad aspect of this is the ever-increasing number of evictions in Summary Process court due to foreclosures. Whether the landlord lost the house due to failed speculating or simple tough times. tenants are often the silent victims of the foreclosure plague. Mediators are often able to help the parties make the eviction a little easier. And a little is a lot.