A nation of law. ...to local community mediators. [ cf: From the country's highest court ... ]

POLICE arrested 17-year-old Robert after he and his uncle had alarmed neighbors with a shouting match and some shoving. Robert was told to appear in court the next day, which he did - after filing a countercomplaint of assault and battery against his uncle Michael. Robert's twin brother, John, also filed a claim. He'd been part of the fracas. When the District Court judge saw the tangle of lawsuits, he threw it out of court - and into Dorchester's Urban Mediation Project (UMP). Participation in the program is voluntary, although a judge's stern recommendation can be a strong impetus. It took an hour an a half of explaining, listening, and persuading for UMP case coordinator Greg Williams to get the family to agree to try mediation.

``They pretty much agreed that it wasn't going to help,'' says Mr. Williams, ``but they'd try it anyway.''

Mediation, in which trained volunteers help disputing parties hammer out a resolution, has been a growing option nationwide for the past 15 years. There are 30 programs in Massachusetts. Dorchester's is the oldest: Some form of mediation has been available in this multiracial Boston neighborhood since 1975.

There are about 350 projects across the country, according to the American Bar Association, which has been actively encouraging the trend. That's nearly twice the number there were three years ago. Most are modest in size, though some programs handle tens of thousands of clients yearly. The average program in Massachusetts had 147 referrals in 1985. Dorchester had 51 referrals that year, though now it averages 10 per month, says UMP director Sandra Washburn. Most programs stem from a handful of federally supported experiments in court reform dating to the early '70s. Federal funds have since been replaced by state and local money, and by foundation grants.

The feuding family was a good candidate for mediation, Ms. Washburn says. ``A resolution from the court process doesn't really fit the situation,'' she says. ``And the court recognizes that.'' A busy judge might have only five minutes to hear each side of a case before he makes a decision. Moments later, the parties ``are out on the street again - arguing,'' Washburn says.

In this case, the twins and their mother, Ann, moved in with Ann's brother and their mother a year and a half ago, following the death of Ann's husband. Tension built until it finally boiled over when Robert borrowed his uncle's car without permission.

Not every dispute should be mediated. But when the parties are in an ongoing relationship (neighbors, landlords and tenants, families, merchants and customers) and of generally equal power (customer vs. big corporation would not be appropriate), mediation's advocates say it's a better way to get at issues and arrive at a satisfactory solution.

The advantages of a mediation include:

Better communication. The parties speak to each other, rather than each only to a judge. The process may open a constructive dialogue for the first time, mediators in the Dorchester project say.

More time to explain and to vent feelings. Mediators are trained to listen. The average mediation session here takes three hours, and some go on for two or three sessions. Everyone has his say, even those not directly involved. Neighbors or others who may be exacerbating a dispute are encouraged to attend sessions.

All the proceedings are confidential. (The names and some details of the incident presented here have been changed to protect their anonymity.)

Solutions tailored to each party's needs. The parties are helped to come up with their own solution, not that of a judge, nor that of the mediator. ``Only you have to live with this solution,'' disputants are told.

Better compliance on agreements. According to a 1981 study, restitution is more than twice as likely in a mediated dispute than in an adjudicated one. About 85 percent of the parties in Dorchester who reach an agreement abide by it.

In Robert's case, the mediation took two sessions and seven hours. The two-mediator team met with the family as a whole and with individual members to work out an agreement signed by all parties. Not only had the twins promised to ask before borrowing their uncle's car, they had also agreed to help around the house more and to turn down their music when adults were in the house. They also learned of their uncle's concern for them. The uncle, meanwhile, said he'd treat the twins with more respect, and talk directly to them, not their mother, when he thought they were misbehaving. A sister who lived nearby learned that she had been exacerbating the conflict through certain well-meaning actions of her own.

The court cases that prompt mediation stay on file for three to six months, in case the agreement breaks down. After that, the charges are dropped.

Mr. Williams didn't hear anything for months, until one day someone called to him on the street: ``Hey, you - you're with mediation, aren't you?'' It was one of the sisters. ``I just wanted to tell you that [mediation] really helped,'' Williams recalls her saying. She wanted Williams to know that she and her sister were talking again, after a long hiatus. And though she was still having trouble with her brother, she felt that situation was mending, too.

``There, you see, a change took place,'' says Williams, a change that wasn't likely to come out of a court case in which parties are treated as adversaries. For him, that kind of helping is one of the rewards of being a mediator.

He certainly isn't in it for the money: The 40 or so volunteer mediators with UMP get $10 a session, to cover expenses.

For more information contact ABA Dispute Resolution Committee, 1800 M St. NW, Second Floor, Washington, DC 20036.

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