Director discusses Michigan ADR @ 25


This year marks the 25th anniversary of the State Court Administrative Office's (SCAO) awarding grants to Community Dispute Resolution Program (CDRP) centers, and the 15th anniversary of the Michigan Supreme Court's adoption of court rules that established the framework for ADR practice in the trial courts.  With the proliferation of courts now referring cases to CDRP centers and private mediators, it seems fitting to ask if ADR is still the “alternative” dispute resolution process in Michigan’s trial courts.

With the general civil trial rate now inching downward toward one percent of court filings, it might be most appropriate to altogether relegate the "Alternative" in ADR to the past; resolving disputes through mediation and other processes is now far more frequent than resolving disputes through bench and jury trials.  Quite clearly, trials are now “alternative” to settlement in Michigan.  “Dispute resolution” is the main business of Michigan’s courts.

The 18 CDRP centers annually help parties in over 7,500 disputes reach settlements, and more than 30,000 people use the centers’ services annually.  While data on the extent to which private mediators similarly help parties reach agreements is unavailable, anecdotally, court staff report that increasing numbers of litigants are turning to mediation as a preferred means of resolving their case. 

Mediation is now used in virtually all general civil and domestic relations case types, and through the CDRP centers, mediation is being used in:

• schools, to help resolve student conflicts that prevent suspensions and expulsions and reduce truancy, and to resolve disputes over special education services;

• child protection cases, to decrease the time children remain in an impermanent setting;

• divorce, to help parents resolve disputes related to raising their children; and

• prisons, to help reduce the number of in-prison infractions that lead to extended incarceration.    

Many people and organizations deserve credit for the rapid growth of ADR practice in Michigan.  Among them are members of the SCAO's early advisory committees that created the structure of the CDRP initiative, and the early mediators who took on the role of mediator trainers and mentors at a time when there were virtually no mediators in the state.  Later task forces recommended court rules for general civil and domestic relations actions, as well as for developing a domestic violence screening protocol that is widely considered the best domestic violence screening tool for mediators in the country. 

The ADR Section of the Michigan State Bar has been at the forefront of promoting ADR best practices among attorneys and mediators, and the Michigan Judicial Institute has routinely provided judges with training opportunities to learn how ADR helps both parties in reaching early dispositions of their cases, and courts in helping them achieve performance objectives.  All Michigan law schools now offer ADR courses and even 40-hour mediation training programs.

The pioneering champions of mediation who created local dispute resolution programs in the late 1980’s also deserve recognition.  With few or no funds yet available, boards of directors at 12 locations across the state organized to form dispute resolution programs that became the first to be financially supported by the SCAO.  The premise then, and remains today, that with the help of a mediator, many people in conflict could resolve their own problems to their mutual satisfaction.

There would be no community mediation, of course, without the volunteer mediators who have contributed so much time and effort to helping members of their own communities resolve their differences. The mediators, many of whom have served for a decade or more, deserve our most heartfelt gratitude.

What might the future hold for ADR?  During this anniversary year, the SCAO will be convening a task force that will be charged with identifying lessons learned and best practices over the past quarter century, as well as identifying challenges that remain in expanding dispute resolution services.  Most importantly, the task force will be invited to develop a future vision for the continued integration of ADR processes into judicial system services.

While courts will increasingly include mediation as part of parties’ experience in the judicial system, there is growing concern over the long term sustainability of community mediation.  Because CDRP centers are supported by revenue from court filing fees, the more effective the centers are in helping parties resolve their dispute before filing a court case, the less funds are generated to support the program and the more CDRP.  Centers and state government constituents will need to find new solutions to address declining funding levels if the statewide program is to be maintained and expanded.

The resolve of mediators 25 years ago to help their neighbors find solutions to their conflicts appears continually reinforced by their success in resolving increasingly complex cases.  Conflict is inevitable; litigation is not.  Hopefully, the next quarter century will bring even greater opportunity for Michigan citizens to discover that mediation can be a productive and economical way to reach a mutually satisfactory resolution for everyone.

—Doug Van Epps, Director, Office of Dispute Resolution, State Court Administrative Office, Michigan Supreme Court

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