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More of a Good Thing

January 04, 1987

The slow pace and high cost of settling disputes in courts of law is leading to a rapid proliferation of alternative institutions for conciliation, a phenomenon that has the approval of the National Institute of Justice and is being encouraged by the American Bar Assn. No wonder. It is desperately needed.

Institute approval came in a report based on the work of about 180 community dispute-resolution centers, among them a dozen in California, that have successfully dealt with criminal and civil problems--including landlord-tenant disagreements, consumer claims, small claims and crimes for which formal charges have not been filed.

By the American Bar Assn.'s count, there are currently 280 nonprofit centers of one sort or another operating in the 50 states--an increase of 100 in the last three years.

Further innovations are now under way, led by California.

The California Legislature, at its last session, approved and Gov. George Deukmejian signed legislation by Sen. John Garamendi (D-Walnut Grove) authorizing counties to earmark a civil-suit filing fee to finance grants for mediation as an alternative to litigation. Los Angeles County is expected to be among the first to implement the measure.

Research and analysis of dispute resolution would be a major function of a proposed Western Justice Center, to be built on federal property at the former Vista del Arroyo Hotel in Pasadena where the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has its headquarters. The justice project is in jeopardy, however, because of pressure to sell off the land for development as a means of reducing the federal debt.

Los Angeles County courts have under consideration a pilot project offering multiple avenues for dispute resolution, coordinated by the traditional courts but using outside institutions to facilitate the process.

Already both the Los Angeles County district attorney and the Los Angeles city attorney have hearing-officer programs to supplement the regular courts.

In addition, California continues a mandatory mediation program as the first step in settling custody and visitation disputes in divorce cases.

The study by the National Institute of Justice found that community-based programs can in certain cases produce faster results at less cost than the courts can. The non-judicial agencies often are better at reaching what the aggrieved accept as "fair remedies."

"Unresolved family violence, landlord-tenant disputes or contract problems can create enormous emotional conflict and destroy a person's sense of living in a just world," according to James Stewart, director of the National Institute of Justice. The institute is part of the Justice Department. "If people with conflicts can gain easy access to an impartial judge, hearing officer, arbitrator or mediation professional, the chances are that the parties will be satisfied in a high percentage of the cases."

Many of the dispute-resolution centers were encouraged with federal seed money, but a study last year by the American Bar Assn. of 182 such operations found only four still funded by the federal government. About one-half were financed by county and city governments, about one-third by state governments and the balance by foundations, trust funds, churches and in some cases solely by fees.

Among the programs now operating in California are the Neighborhood Justice Center in Santa Monica, the Community Board Program and Community Disputes Settlement Service in San Francisco, the Community Mediation Program in San Diego, the Community Dispute Resolution Center in Pasadena, the Neighborhood Mediation and Conciliation Service of San Jose and the Christian Conciliation Service of Fresno. The American Bar Assn., prepares an annual list of centers throughout the nation with a description of each operation.

"The greatest benefits these centers have afforded us are not in easing system stress but in ameliorating sources of potentially damaging conflicts and personal retribution," Stewart said in presenting the National Institute of Justice appraisal. There can be no better reason for encouraging the process.

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