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Family court mediation - an alternative to litigation?

Family law - dissolution, child custody, financial support, and distribution of family assets are often emotional and highly litigated issues. As a result, many courts backlogged with these cases have created separate courts referred to as "Family Courts" or "Domestic Relations Courts" just to relieve these backlogs.

In some jurisdictions, mediation often referred to as Alternative Dispute Resolution has been offered as an alternative. What is mediation? Family law mediation occurs when the parties agree to seek objective independent social workers and family law counselors to resolve contested issues, i.e., child custody, or financial distribution prior to or in lieu of court. In California, if a child custody dispute exists, both parties are required to meet with Family Court Counselors to attempt resolution of the custody disputes and reach a custody agreement instead of litigating in court. The counselors interview all parties, offer advice, and submit reports with their recommendations. Although the Family Court Counselorís primary responsibility is to encourage resolution of child custody disputes and promote a custodial agreement between the parties, the counselors secondarily act as fact finders and make recommendations to the judge regarding how they feel custody should be awarded. In California, and similar models because of their secondary responsibilities, and the mandatory requirement that all custody disputes come before them, they are basically an agent of the court, of which some parties view with skepticism.

However, in Pennsylvania family law cases are referred to students at the Temple University School of Law. Typically about half a dozen students take part each semester, and they work on cases in pairs. The students are given seminars from other department professionals at Temple University, i.e., psychology, sociology, etc. to prepare students for many of the problems they will face from the diverse races, cultures, and financial backgrounds of the parties. In one semester at the school the students mediated 43 disputes and resolved 38, resulting in an 88 percent success rate. The main distinction between the Family Court Mediation as in California as opposed to the Pennsylvania model, is that in the California the counselors are often seen as an agent of the court due to the mandatory nature of their process, and the fact that they make recommendations to the court, which can alienate the parties. Whereas in the Pennsylvania model, the counselors are students and therefore not viewed as mandatory, which often facilitates the mediation process because the parties are more relaxed and at ease in resolving their emotional family issues.

I commend the Pennsylvania Model of Family Court Mediation and feel it is a alternative to the backlog of Family Court cases that plague most courts - well worth watching!

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