by TYLER COBB
Going to court for a divorce can be stressful, both monetarily and emotionally. In Utah couples are required to sit down with a mediator to work through their problems in an attempt to avoid a court trial and a hefty legal bill.
The State of Utah began requiring mediation in 2005 to help people avoid going to court by talking with a neutral mediator, trained in how to handle family conflicts and how to navigate the law.
Stewart Ralphs, executive director of the Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake, said hundreds of low-income families need legal advice and most lawyers do pro bono work to keep costs low. But it costs even less when couples can solve problems through a mediator.
“We’re trained in law school to be very zealous advocates for our clients and go to the mat and take these cases to trial and bring in all the evidence and win, win, win,” Ralphs said. “Mediation is just the opposite – it’s trying to come up with a resolution for everybody as a winner.”
Ralphs said the organization generally works with mediators from Utah Dispute Resolution, a nonprofit mediation organization where most mediators work as volunteers to keep costs low for struggling families.
If the parties can resolve their dispute using mediation it’s much cheaper than going to trial, and there is a fairly high rate of resolution. “It can vary between 60 to 75 percent of the time, which is certainly cheaper than going through the whole trial process,” Ralphs said.
Mediators spend hours negotiating with both parties to reach a fair conclusion, but they have to remain neutral despite what is said.
The courts require that mediators spend at least 40 hours in training, which they can receive at the dispute resolution center. Nancy McGahey, executive director of the center, said most mediators the center hires are well-trained and have certain skills and personality traits that help them work with couples.
“People in dispute need time. As a mediator you need to sit with people and be comfortable with people who are emotional,” McGahey said. “It’s also important to know oneself and be aware of your own internal biases, especially when you’re starting to lose neutrality.”
At the Legal Aid Society, attorneys rely “very heavily” on mediation to avoid court dispute, Ralphs said. Going to court can increase costs for all families. Ralphs said the organization charges anywhere from $200 to $600 for family-law cases, just for lawyer and court costs. However, there are other expenses depending on the results of the court and how long it drags out.
“You come up with an agreement that people are actually going to implement and make work,” Ralphs said. “These are people that have got to live the rest of their lives together. They have kids together. They have property together, and they can usually come up with a better solution than a judge can in a one- or two-day trial.”
Many women and/or men who come to the Legal Aid Society for a family-law case have multiple factors they need to consider and resolve, especially those seeking a divorce. The couple will have to review childcare, health care, child support, property resolution and other issues.
The Legal Aid Society sees so many family-law cases that they usually request mediators trained specifically for family law.
McGahey said family-law mediators need additional training beyond most mediators.
“They’re more experienced and have more training,” McGahey said. “To be approved on the court roster, a domestic mediator needs 20 hours of practical experience, an ethics exam, a criminal background check and in addition, the person needs a minimum of 32 hours domestic training and a formal mentorship, which involves six mediation sessions at a minimum.”
With a good mediator, a session can be successful and help couples find a solution.
Some women requesting legal help come from an abusive or closed relationship and sometimes need to say what they’re feeling, Ralphs said. A mediator can provide an atmosphere to work through problems without arguing or yelling.
If mediation or negotiation doesn’t work, attorneys will start preparing to take the case to court. “The custody battle follows,” Ralphs said.