IDAHO FALLS — Volunteer mediators have been saving the court system time and money while helping people come to reasonable agreements for more than 20 years.
“It’s when we can take the case and resolve it and it doesn’t involve the judges or the clerks or any of those kinds of things,” mediator Henry Henscheid says.
The small claims volunteer mediation program started in the 7th Judicial District in 1998. Small claims mediation coordinator Jennifer Neermann says the program began as a response to a substantial increase in the number of small claims cases filed at the time. Small claims cases include cases with financial disputes between $0 and $5,000.
“There were a few mediators around and they said that they would be happy to step up and mediate these cases on a volunteer basis. So the program has been a volunteer program since then,” Neerman says.
Neerman says these volunteers have 40 hours of basic mediation training under their belts giving them a foundation of how to best serve as mediators. They also learn how to facilitate a conversation between parties, and they take an additional 10-hour course with the Grand Teton Mediation Association learning how to do the proper paperwork.
“We don’t act as lawyers or judges. We are simply there to help facilitate a conversation and it’s a far better choice to go to mediation and try to settle your case before going to court because it doesn’t go on the court record,” Neerman says.
All court documentation shows is that the case was resolved, but nobody gets a judgment on their records. Neerman says once litigators reach an agreement they don’t have to go back to court.
“They take control of the situation rather than a judge making the decision for them,” Neerman says. “The mediator helps (people) to find a middle ground and keep control of the situation.”
Magistrate Judge Jason Walker says the mediators are assigned on a case by case basis.
“The advantages of having the bank of mediators there is probably because in most of these cases, hiring a mediator would be cost-prohibitive. I think there’s a great place for professional mediators and I order it all the time … but in these types of cases, frankly, people can’t afford to hire a mediator,” Walker says.
Walker says he can’t say enough good things about the 18 or so volunteer mediators in the district.
“I mean, it’s a little bit selfish because they make my life so much easier,” Walker says. “They just come from all different kinds of backgrounds with all kinds of different … life experiences and they’re just awesome.”
Overall Henscheid says the mediation experience as a volunteer is challenging and can be intense, emotional and frustrating, but overall he’s enjoyed his time doing it. His says his input of volunteer hours can vary from 1 to 10 per week depending on the case.
“You’re not going to succeed every time. But, I will tell you it’s by far one of the most rewarding experiences and it gives people a chance, which is rare in some respects these days for somebody to slow down and listen to what somebody’s trying to tell them,” Henscheid says.
To know more about where you can get started as a mediator go to the Grand Teton Mediation Associations website.