From today's Los Angeles Daily Journal
JAMMED RIVERSIDE COURT WILL COMPEL MEDIATION
By Greg Katz
RIVERSIDE - The first thing Riverside County Superior Court Judge Michael B. Donner told a courtroom packed with trial-ready lawyers on a recent Monday was good morning.
Soon after, he added: "I will tell you, I have no open courtrooms for trial, as I did last Monday."
Such is the weekly ritual in Riverside's civil courts, where justice is routinely delayed in the county often called one of the most backlogged in the state. . . . . . .
Soon, the court plans to try another technique: court-ordered mediation.
According to the court's ADR programs director, Barrie Roberts, the court plans to introduce court-ordered mediations and a mediator panel to handle the cases in January.
The court has opted in to a state law that allows judges to order cases into mediation when $50,000 or less is in dispute, Roberts said. She added that parties also can use court mediators voluntarily when the amount in dispute is higher.
Similar systems are in place in Los Angeles and a handful of other counties.
"The impetus is to encourage the best type of dispute resolution," regardless of which type it is, Roberts said. "It's not just settling cases. It's deeper than that. It's what serves the parties best."
Roberts, a former legal aid attorney who studied at Pepperdine University School of Law's Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution, said the panel will start with around 40 neutrals, who will receive training in November from Pepperdine's faculty.
"We're starting small and really high quality," Roberts said.
When the judges order mediations, the court will pay mediators $150 for their first three hours of work. When parties volunteer to use the court's mediator panel, mediators will negotiate their rates with the parties, she said. [the Fee Request is here]
The funds will come directly from the court's budget, Riverside Presiding Judge Richard T. Fields said.
"Early resolution is just really critical because we have a limited number of trial courtrooms," Fields said.
For years, the court's main option to help settle cases was Elwood Rich, a retired judge who juggles concurrent settlement conferences in the main hallway of Riverside's century-old courthouse. Rich's settlement conferences have become such an institution that a painting of him now overlooks the court's entrance, only a few feet from the hallway benches where he usually conducts business.
Recently, as it became clear that the sheer quantity of litigants awaiting trial on Monday mornings was too much for Rich alone, the court recruited well-known local lawyers as "volunteer settlement officers" for last-minute Monday settlement conferences.
"It was nothing [against] Judge Rich, of course, there just was not enough resources to handle all those lawyers and cases," said Riverside attorney Michael Marlatt of Thompson & Colegate, who helped set up the volunteer program. . . . .