A neighborly way to settle disputes

If the neighbor's dog bites you, your kids break a window in the house next door, or your landlord won't repair the crumbling ceiling, there is something you can do other than moving or calling your lawyer:

You can take justice into your own hands.

For the past several years Neighborhood Justice Centers in communities across the country have been successfully solving just each problems without dragging them through the overloaded and expensive court system.

In the Neighborhood Justice Center here an elderly woman in a neon-bright shift sits across from a kindly mannered young man in shorts. She is no stranger to the bargaining table. Living chiefly on social security, she has dickered and dealt her way to making ends meet for years. She is now nearly boxed in a corner and is ready to come out scrapping.

The young man, here on his day off, knows he is right and that he could win in court. That's his leverage.

In the middle, the volunteer mediator tries to pull them together, dollar by dollar. The issue is the $1,200 damage done to his sports car when she pulled away from a stop sign in a van and ran into him.

"Two hundreds dollars at he most," she says. She'll try to borrow it from her brother.

"one thousand minimum," he says.

"Too bad he's so nice," she comments, "or I could really get nasty."

After three hours of shuttle diplomacy -- probing for common ground in private caucuses with one side then the other -- they leave without the written agreement they had hoped for.

But they don't head for court either. instead he is going to see if he can sell anyone a 55-gallon drum of industrial cleaner she still has from a transaction gone awry years back, and a still-in-the-box air conditioner she has never used.

Success is hard to measure.

Meanwhile, the three-year-old Neighborhood Justice Center here is slowly being kicked out of the nest. Its Justice Department funding runs our next March, and to survive it will have to sell its community services to local budgetmakers and link up with the traditional legal system, to try find its niche in the landscape of the American judicial system. The movement for solving stormy disputes short of the courtroom has achieved success just as the fiscal weather has turned foul. US Attorney General Griffin Bell put the Justice Department behind the concept in 1977 by creating Neighborhood Justice Centers in Atlanta, Kansas City, Mo., and venice, Calif. Since then the number of mediation centers of various types in cities around the country has grown to about 150.

One reason for their success is that the mediators can take ongoing disputes between neighbors, family members, or landlords and tenants and get the adversaries talking to each other again in a way the traditional judicial system cannot.

In Columbus, Ohio, two college fraternities were involved in a longstanding battle over a disputed property line. Negotiations had deteriorated to the point where there were criminal charges of vandalism and theft. The court would have dealt only with these charges. But Larry Ray, then director of a dispute mediation center in Columbus (and now staff director of the Committee for the Resolution of Minor Disputes of the American Bar Association), worked out an agreement between both groups that got to the heart of the conflict.

Such disparate organizations as the National Chamber of Commerce and Ralph Nader's Raiders found the reasons to promote mediation -- unclogging the courts, making justice more accessible, reducing the cost of legal advice, and strengthening communities -- compelling enough to unite in support of the 1980 Dispute Resolution Act.

The act was passed by Congress, but then was cut out of the budget completely. In the 1960s, remarks Dan McGillis of the Harvard University Center for Criminal Justice, a concept like this could have taken off and been intitutionalized everywhere. In the 1980s, however, "it's much tougher to create new social programs."

But the neighborhood justice movement's momentum is still strong even if its budget is not. In these conservative times, conflict mediators are looking more to state and local agencies for money.

To Susan Stockell, the director of Venice's Neighborhood Justice Center, the value of mediation is in defusing arguments before they erupt into conflicts that could go to court. But preventive work can be self-defeating: There is nothing to show for it.

As a result, the Venice justice center is finally going the way most of the nation's other such centers have gone and is hooking up with the city attorney's office, which will refer appropriate kinds of criminal cases to the center's mediators. In this way, the center will build up its caseload and gain credibility and exposure.

States are showing an interest in conflict mediation where the federal government is not. Minnesota became the first state to actually appropriate money for a program, some $100,000 this year. Texas attempted to attach $3.50 to court filing fees, earmarked for mediation costs. Despite wide support the measure failed.

One of the major questions still facing mediation programs is what agencies they should be linked to: the courts themselves, prosecutors, district attorneys , or some entirely different organization.

The practical move for neighborhood justice centers, suggests LArry Ray, is for them to join the organizations where people usually lodge complaints, be it with the police, city councillors, or elsewhere. This is the road that seems to pay off for mediation centers. It doesn't, however, always lead them where they want to go.

"It's very easy to show results from our work with the DA's office," Ms. Stockell says. But she admits this set-up is a compromise. The ambition of the Venice Neighborhood Justice Center is still to be well-known enough to be a refuge of first resort for budding conflicts, where people come voluntarily and in good faith to resolve their differences. The court connection, some observers feel, adds an element of coercion that can undermine the best aspect of a center's work.

Perhaps the best of mediation is that people understand what is going on. "People control their own fate," says Fred DuBow, associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Illinois in Chicago. The courtroom, according to many who have evaluated mediation programs, is confusing and demeaning by comparison.

Dr. DuBow has done research in East Africa where he notes that people have a number of options for airing grievances before they reach court, -- from tribes and clans to political party cells. He was struck by the Africans confidence and competence in speaking for themselves, something that one doesn't see in American small claims or traffic courts, he says.

This could be because Americans generally farm out their conflicts to experts.

The self-made agreements reached through mediation (at the Venice center, about 75 percent of the cases reach a written agreement) hold up well even after six to nine months, according to Dr. David Sheppard, formerly senior research scientist at the Institute for Social Analysis in Reston, Va., who co-authored a Justice Department report of the Neighborhood Justice Centers in 1980.

People on both sides of conflicts felt better after mediated agreements than did their counterparts who took their cases to court, Dr. Sheppard found.

Initially, the hope for the centers was to relieve the over- burdened courts. This is not happened thus far, he says. Instead, the advantage of mediation has been for people to be more satified with the quality of justice, "more chance to get their say-so."

Mediation works best in ongoing relationships between neighbors, family members, or landlords and tenants. And those on both sides of the table usually need to be on fairly equal terms. When an individual is pitted against a large business, for example, the seldom shows up for mediation.

Mediation programs still need to figure out how they fit into the legal system, if at all, and into the social services network. They need to know more about what style of mediation -- now mostly based on models borrowed from labor mediation -- works best for what type of case. And they need to be able to show what they have accomplished to win local support. On these issues, most researchers agree.

This fall, the American Bar Association will begin setting up between three and five "multidoor" justice centers where people can come for mediation, more judiciallike arbitration, or simply fact-finding ombudsmen. The Ford Foundation is planning a National Institute for Dispute Resolution to help focus the movement.

The movement for justice by agreement outside of court is "robust and vital," Harvard's Dan McGillis says, because of its broadly based support. But diverse support has its drawbacks too: chiefly, many different ideas of what mediation centers are and who should pay for them. "They may need to single out goals and steer straighter toward them," McGillis says.

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