Take a moment and imagine what it would be like to navigate the legal world without the legal knowledge you have. How would you begin? Where do you get the right information? What forms would you file? Where are they and how do you file them? When do you file them? This is the overwhelming position that every pro se litigant faces whenever they cannot afford the services of an attorney.
This predicament is most visible in the lengthy Family Court docket in the Circuit Court of Baltimore City. Not only are the litigants trying to negotiate their way through the bewildering family law maze but they are doing so in one of the most stressful arenas of law – family disputes. In 2003, a partnership was formed to help alleviate some of the court’s burden while offering an excellent opportunity for lasting resolutions to thorny issues through mediation.
The Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland, Inc., (PBRC) and the University of Baltimore School of Law’s Pro Bono Mediation Clinic began the collaboration with Baltimore City Circuit Court at that time. The program model affords both parties in a pro se family law case the opportunity to mediate their dispute while being represented by counsel. The Mediation Clinic provides counsel for one party through a faculty advisor and one of the students in the program. PBRC recruits volunteer attorneys for the role of opposing counsel as well as for the role of mediator.
Robert Rubinson, Esq., is a Professor of Law at the University of Baltimore School of Law and is the Director of the Clinical Education program there. “I have found that in most cases the involvement of attorneys in the mediation process enhances the quality of outcomes for litigants,” Rubinson says. “Attorneys can inform their clients about mediation, empower clients to be active participants in the mediation process, act as a sounding board and offer support during the stresses of family mediation, and help clients understand legal issues, thus enabling clients to better understand the legal consequences of agreements.” Rubinson adds that in his view, mediation helps participants craft agreements that are likely to be more durable, comprehensive and more beneficial to all concerned, including children.
model affords both parties in a pro se family law case the opportunity to mediate their dispute while being represented by counsel.
The Pro Bono Mediation Program has enjoyed great success since its inception in 2003. Every fall and spring, between eight and 10 sessions are scheduled with the Family Court. The representation each party receives is limited to that particular mediation session. These volunteers have helped to mediate custody, child support, divorce, property distribution, separation agreements, alimony, school placement, visitation and modification disputes. The solutions they reach are valid and represent the interests of both parties. They are also binding and give the participants a more meaningful role in shaping their future obligations and relationships.
Through the fall 2009 session, the only students involved in the program have been from the University of Baltimore Mediation Clinic, but for the first time this spring, students from the University of Maryland’s School of Law will have an opportunity to get involved as well. For several sessions, the roles of opposing attorneys will be filled with students from both universities.
“Law student involvement in the Pro Bono Mediation Program generates many benefits,” Rubinson notes. “Students not only learn how to represent clients in mediation in a constructive and effective way, but it also instills in students a continuing commitment to the growth of mediation and to providing professional services to unrepresented litigants.”
The involvement of law students is a great benefit to the program, but since the beginning the participation of volunteer family law attorneys and mediators has been essential to the program’s success. Even with the advent of additional student participation there are still four sessions in which volunteer attorneys are needed and five sessions for volunteer mediators.
The program operates on Thursdays, and volunteers typically commit most of the day. The sessions can be hard work, but the outcome is worth it. Comments that filter back from the clients are of feeling empowered, of being a part of the solution and of feeling they had a chance to be heard.
If you would like to be involved in this kind of program, or for more information on other volunteering or training opportunities around Maryland, please contact Jon Moseley at (410) 837-9379 or (800) 396-1274, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Support your local legal service provider. Add you resources to the fight.
Jon Moseley is Director of Volunteer Services for the ProBonoResourceCenter of Maryland.