Virginia's Judicial System


Prince William County General District Court Pilot Project Results Reported

Proposed Project:

Prince William County Contract Mediators (PWCCM) would obtain copies of the Warrant In Debts without counsel cases in Prince William County for the months of July and August 2002 from the Clerk's office. PWCCM members would send the appropriate disputants a letter offering to schedule a mediation session with the parties prior to the first return court date. A PWCCM mediation brochure would be included with the letter to provide details of the Mediation Program in Prince William County.

Approval was requested to conduct the project after PWCCM had received many complaints from disputants that they had not been advised, when their warrant was filed, that their case might be referred to mediation by the Court. PWCCM also had encountered numerous times that disputants did not have all the paperwork, or all parties, required to mediate their case at the initial mediation session when referred directly to mediation by the Court on their first return date. The General District Court judges approved the Pilot Project for the period July 1 through September 30, 2002.

Results:

After approval of the project was obtained, the Office of Dispute Resolution (ODR) determined that it was the appropriate office to send the letters and to be the initial point of contact for the disputants.

During the period of July 1 through August 30, there were 516 cases on the General District Court Docket and Small Claims Court Docket, of which 252 were possible mediation cases. The ODR sent letters to 207 of those cases. The difference in the number of cases and number of letters is due to the fact that some cases did not appear on the court files ODR used to obtain the disputants' case information, and some cases were added to the docket after the case information was obtained.

Disputants from 37 of those possible 207 mediation cases were referred to PWCCM for follow up. A small number of other persons responded to the ODR, but for various reasons the ODR determined that their case was not appropriate for mediation. There was an almost equal number of plaintiffs and defendants that responded to the mailing.

Pilot Project Process:

After the first week of July, when the letters were sent providing the ODR Director as the initial point of contact, disputants responded to the ODR first. Cases were referred by the ODR to the PWCCM mediator who happened to be at the ODR on the day the case information became available. Starting July 9th, the case information was faxed to the PWCCM scheduler who then assigned the case to a mediator. The mediator was responsible for contacting the disputants for the purpose of establishing a mediation time convenient to both parties. Frequently, the phone number the initial contacting party provided for the other party was not a current number. Generally, many, many phone calls had to be made back and forth between the parties in an effort to schedule a mediation session. Several times, one party was a no-show for scheduled mediation sessions or one party canceled at the last minute. Due to the amount of effort required and the small number of Pilot Project mediations during the trial period, PWCCM and the ODR decided to end the Project on August 30, 2002.

Pilot Project Results:

Of the 37 referrals, 10 cases were mediated and all reached agreement! The plaintiff had initially responded to the mailing in five of the cases and the defendant had initially responded in the other five cases.

Per the court management system, of the 27 referrals that chose not to mediate, 3 cases were non-suited, 9 cases were dismissed by the court, default judgments were entered by the Court for 5 cases, 2 cases was dismissed after the parties reached agreement themselves, judgments for the plaintiff were entered by the court for 6 cases, and trials are scheduled for the remaining 3 cases.

With the exception of 2 cases, the results seem to indicate that the cases that were mediated would most likely have been mediated anyway. The persons who did mediate their cases were quite happy with the ability to mediate at a time convenient to them and the fact that they did not have to have to appear in court.

It appeared to us that some of the cases we were unable to mediate because one of the parties did not respond, were cases that were pretty much "wish cases." One case was over four years old. Nine cases were dismissed by the court, which appears to validate our observation.

Many defendants do not appear in court on their first return court date. We had hoped that our offering to mediate cases at times convenient to those persons would assist them in resolving their case short of receiving an automatic judgment. The project apparently did not appeal to those persons.

A major disappointment was the small number of small claims disputants that responded to the mailing. During the Pilot Project, there were 29 cases on the small claims docket. Disputants from only 6 cases replied to the mailing and no cases were mediated. On the three small claims days in July and August, 22 cases were referred to mediation by the court. Twelve of those cases reached agreement in mediation, the court dismissed 5 cases that returned to court and judgments were entered for the plaintiff in 5 cases.

During the months of July and August, 46 cases were referred to PWCCM mediation by the court, 7 of those cases did not mediate, and 39 cases did mediate in addition to the 10 Pilot Project cases. This was a record number of cases for the time period, so perhaps the disputants having received the mediation information itself made the parties in a more positive mood for settling their case through mediation. The PWCCM settlement rate for the months of July and August was 70%.

(Associated Mediators of Prince William County (AMPWC) were in General District Court on August 27, 28, 29. Their numbers are not included in PWCCM's totals. PWCCM members were in Court for Small Claims on August 28, 2002.)

Items for consideration:

  1. PWCCM provides mediation brochures at the General District Court Information Desk and in the clerk's office; however, we would welcome the opportunity to work with the clerk's office to get mediation information to the disputants when the Warrant In Debt is filed.
  2. PWCCM appreciates mediation remarks made by the bailiffs prior to the start of court but the information provided is not always accurate. PWCCM would be most happy, in coordination with the ODR, to have a short training class for the bailiffs or for PWCCM to make remarks about mediation prior to the start of court.
  3. PWCCM had originally discussed the possibility of giving the parties two possible mediation times or suggesting that the parties would be responsible for contacting each other and then the mediator to schedule a time if they had agreed to mediate. Neither one of these ideas were used during the project. Perhaps a similar project could be conducted on a limited basis.
  4. The Northern Virginia Mediation Service office that serves the Fairfax courts phones the disputants prior to their court date, informs them of the mediation process and offers to mediate the case before the first return court date. This process works well for them. They also sent the letters for a period of time but found that the parties only responded to the personal contact. The Fairfax County Court requires phone numbers on the Warrants In Debt where Prince William County does not. If PWCCM were to use this method, it would require that PWCCM obtain the phone numbers for the disputants or at least for one of them.
  5. Small Claims Court continues to be a challenge for PWCCM. Our experience has been that the cases in which we are able to facilitate a settlement are cases that the parties are ready to settle even before coming to court or where the defendant is concerned about having a judgment on their credit report. Most plaintiffs want the judge to settle their case and most receive judgments. Parties also seem quite ready to return to court to have their case settled as it will be heard by the court that same morning versus General District Court cases where the parties must return to court another day for a trial.

Submitted by Margaret Hargis, President of Prince William County Contract Mediators. Ms. Hargis has been a court-certified mediator in Virginia since 1998 and holds General District Court, J&DR District Court, and Circuit Court-Family certifications as well as Mentor Status.


This page last modified: February 20, 2003