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Master’s project inspires lawyers to volunteer

Student’s mediation idea led to attorneys pitching in to clear court calendar

Like too many courts throughout the state and country, Wake County District Court has an overloaded docket and a shortage of judges and support staff – common problems that are rooted in tight budgets.

But something noteworthy has happened here. Local family law attorneys have banded together and are sacrificing valuable time away from their practices to help resolve domestic relations cases that have been disrupting lives and clogging the court calendar.

And it all started with a graduate thesis.



While working on a master’s degree in peace and conflict studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Aida Havel, a Raleigh-based mediator, established a one-woman mediation program in the Wake County Family Court, a branch of the District Court. Since then, her project has grown into a volunteer program that involves more than a dozen lawyers.

“I felt personally like what I was doing was a drop in the bucket given the huge volume of cases,” Havel said. “But all the Family Court judges felt differently.”

The Family Court is not in a position to turn down help.

It has a chronically overbooked calendar and needs a fourth judge on the bench. It’s not unusual for a judge to have more than 30 hours of cases, from child support and custody hearings to alimony and equitable distribution matters, scheduled for a seven-hour day, which means many cases get continued over and over again, leading to delays and backlogs.

“The problem with the larger counties is we have so many people and not enough court time,” said Family Court Judge Christine Walczyk. “It’s a constant battle to determine how much you want to put on” the calendar.

She added that about half the cases in Family Court are pro se, and of the remaining cases, 75 percent involve one attorney.

The few litigants who can afford to hire a lawyer at the outset of a case sometimes run out of money before the matter is resolved because of all the continuances, said Stephanie Gibbs, a family law attorney at Gailor Hunt Jenkins Davis & Taylor in Raleigh.

In some instances, people are paying their attorneys “a ton of money” to show up for hearing dates on the court calendar that “really amount to, at best, a 50/50 chance that they’ll get heard,” Gibbs said.

“People with average incomes just can’t afford that,” she added.

There’s also an emotional cost to the delays, especially when child custody disputes are involved.

In December, Gibbs was trying to fit one of her custody cases onto the court’s March or April calendar. If the case gets bumped, she expects that it would be another two to four months before it would have a chance of getting heard.

“A lot can happen in a custody case in four or five months,” she said.

Havel’s master’s project, which began in January 2015, offered an alternative to pro se Family Court litigants after their cases were pushed from the crowded calendar. Rather than waiting several months for another hearing, they could mediate with her. The judges took care of the introductions.

“They would really build me up to the point that I was embarrassed about it,” Havel said. “They were trying to sell it to people.”

‘Pretty fearless’ mediator

Havel mediated alone in an unused courtroom, which was less than ideal: Lawyers looking for a quiet place to meet with their clients often interrupted the sessions. Also, there was no bailiff, which concerned Walczyk, according to Havel. But she asserts that she was never concerned about her safety, even when the back-and-forth became heated.

“I’m pretty fearless when I mediate and so I don’t mind if they get angry or there are tears,” she said. “When they do that it lets me know what matters to them.”

She started out mediating contempt motions, which usually center on small issues that can be resolved relatively quickly. But she went on to step into the middle of nearly every type of case that gets heard in Family Court, with the exceptions of absolute divorce, annulment and any matters involving domestic violence protective orders.

Litigants in domestic violence cases can mediate their disputes through a separate volunteer program that Havel helped Wake County District Court Judge Jennifer Green create before Green died in December 2014.

Havel also had a hand in the creation of the Family Court’s unique online calendar for scheduling cases. Her husband, a graphic artist, and one of his colleagues built the calendar website, which replaced a notebook in the clerk’s office. A group of family law attorneys paid about $3,000 out of their own pockets for the online calendar, according to Havel.

“I think we have a very generous bar and a great bar-bench relationship in Wake County,” she said.

‘Extremely successful’ project

The Family Court mediation sessions usually last about two to three hours, Havel said. Both sides sign an agreement to mediate that includes protections for them and the mediator. Any resolution reached during the session becomes binding when a judge approves the terms of the settlement.

“I had done mediation for many years, but this was a different socioeconomic group and it was people who were not prepared to mediate,” Havel said. “These were people who were in court and ready to fight and then all of a sudden they were told their case was getting bumped.”

By the time Havel graduated in May, she said, she had mediated 18 disputes and resolved 16 of them. She single-handedly freed up 16 slots on the Family Court calendar in five months.

“It was extremely successful,” she said.

Havel expected that her mediation sessions would end with the completion of her thesis, which was well received by her professor. But she said Walczyk pushed to continue and expand the project.

Now, 15 attorneys, not including Havel, are volunteering to mediate Family Court cases two days a week. They no longer operate out of an empty courtroom. They have a conference room in the old district attorney’s office, where they can work without interruption.

Between July and October, the group mediated 38 cases and settled 30 – a success rate of nearly 80 percent.

Model program for ‘any county’

Jenny Bradley, a family law attorney at Cheshire Parker Schneider & Bryan in Raleigh, was among the first lawyers to participate in the Family Court pro bono mediation program that Havel started.

“It seems to give people a different forum to work out their differences,” she said. “I think when two people can come up with a resolution on their own it’s generally better and they’re more likely to adhere to it.”

She added that sometimes people who agree to mediation have already worked out a resolution and were simply waiting for their case to be heard after months or years of delay. Other cases are more difficult. And some are impossible.

“I had a guy who had just gotten out of prison and he said, ‘I want my son to live with me,’” Bradley said. He had been incarcerated for nine of the 16 years that his son had been alive and the mother did not want to relinquish custody.

The state requires mediation in custody disputes and some parents who have gone through the court-ordered program are hesitant to try to work things out again with the Wake County volunteers, but those who do sometimes reach a resolution, according to Bradley.

It is unclear how many other lawyer-run volunteer pro bono mediation programs are operating elsewhere in the state. (Havel and Bradley were not aware of any others, though Greene County appears to offer a somewhat similar service.) But rolling out Havel’s model statewide would not be difficult.

“I would love to see other counties do it,” she said. “I think the delay problem is not unique to Wake County. I think any county with a significant backlog could implement this program.”

Follow Phillip Bantz on Twitter @NCLWBantz

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