Mediation Plays Central Role in Island Courts


The Martha's Vineyard Mediation Program is the silent partner of the Edgartown District Court. While what happens in court is public and sometimes pyrotechnic, mediation takes disputes off the docket and behind closed doors. It's a voluntary alternative that allows disputants, facilitated by two mediators, to work together toward a mutually agreeable solution.

Referrals from small claims court aren't the only ones that come to mediation, but they are the majority. Program coordinator Jane Thayer estimated seeing two small-claims cases for every one that comes from elsewhere in the community.

Mediation is a process ideally suited for a range of disputes: employer-employee, tenant-landlord, contractor-homeowner and neighbor to neighbor. Family disagreements - parent to teenager, separations and estate planning concerns - also bring people to mediation. The MVMP does not offer services in criminal cases or instances of spousal abuse or domestic violence.

The program started on-Island nearly 20 years ago through the efforts of Judge Herbert E. Tucker Jr. and clerk-magistrate Thomas A. Teller. Judge Tucker had come here from the Dorchester court system, where the first mediation program in the state had begun.

"We thought, why not do the same thing here? It's helpful to the court and to the people," Mr. Tucker said this week in an MVMP panel discussion with the Gazette. "Sometimes matters can be disposed of without as much attention to evidentiary matters. We don't want to frighten anybody; they don't need some shark lawyer questioning them. They can be at ease, say what they want and get away with it. It's about using your common sense. We can dispose of things without resorting to the law and clogging up the court."

Mediation is a private and confidential process. There are no judges; lawyers may be present if both parties agree, but they must follow the mediation procedure. The Island program assigns two trained mediators per case. Each party tells his story, uninterrupted, while the others listen.

The mediators do not decide who is right or wrong, and they impose no solutions. What they do is guide discussion, help overcome communication barriers, and help people to understand other points of view.

"We're like mirrors for the disputants," Ms. Thayer said. "But we can take a step back and look at the dispute in a different light."

A successful mediation does not turn on questions of law. Rather, it relies on the disputants themselves and the underlying belief that people want to settle their differences and can best decide what will work for them. The agreements are their own. Once formalized in writing and signed, they are legally binding.

In a peak year, the MVMP might see 100 cases. The mediation program, however, is not currently at its peak. It has experienced an ebb and flow since its inception. They've had as many as 30 volunteers; today the number hovers around 10.

Lack of funding is partially responsible for the cycle. A $50 fee per session covers minimal expenses, but the program is nonprofit. Though they have received occasional grants from the Massachusetts Bar Foundation - to go toward training, for example - there is no single, consistent source. And without funds it's difficult for the program to put itself in the public eye. Referrals from lawyers, Elder Care or Community Services account for many of the cases that come their way. "We never had a budget," said Mr. Teller. "We never had money, not even for a postage stamp."

Volunteer commitment, instead, supports the program from year to year. And the simple fact that it works. Mr. Teller said 85 to 90 per cent of cases that go to mediation are resolved to the satisfaction of all parties - he estimated that to be 10 per cent more than throughout the state.

"Mediation is ideal in a small community, because people have to have ongoing relationships whether they like it or not," Mr. Teller said. "These are neighbors or friends of neighbors or someone you can bump into at the A&P."

"A lot of times you hear people say, ‘I just wanted you to hear my concerns,' " Ms. Thayer said.

"They may just want an apology," added mediator Catherine Chamberlain. "A case can turn on a little thing. It's often the principle of the matter."

"In that sense it complements the court process," said mediator Deborah Medders. "Some cases are more appropriate for mediation because they are so emotionally impacting."

Allowing for feeling is one of the greatest advantages of mediation. "They let off their steam, and we try to make one spout of it," said Mr. Tucker.

"We don't dismiss emotion," Mr. Hanjian said. "People come in with specific solutions in mind. But the key is to investigate why they feel so strongly. And it lets the opponent see where they're coming from."

Everyone at the table agreed that helping to find solutions to seemingly insurmountable problems is all the reward they need. "It's a way to get close to the concept of justice and fair play," said mediator John Washbrook. "And in the end, the feeling of achievement, there's nothing like it."