Mediation Program Drops Caseload for Judges in One Texas County, Wins Them Award

A Texas County’s approach to handling an “exploded” number of debt collection cases as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic has improved resolution rates before cases get to a judge and netted the county an achievement award from the National Association of Counties, according to a published report.

Justices of the Peace in Lubbock County, Texas, see more than 2,000 collection lawsuits filed every year, and the COVID-19 pandemic caused the number of cases to “pile up,” according to the report. Exacerbating the problem was a doubling of the civil jurisdiction cap for justices of the peace to $20,000, which meant that the justices were procedurally required to handle more cases.

To address the problem, the justices, in conjunction with the Lubbock County Office of Dispute Resolution, began requiring all cases to be heard before a mediator before they got to a courtroom. The Dispute Resolution Office has about 70 trained mediators, according to the report, and they have more room to negotiate and find a compromise that both sides can work with than a judge does, said one of the mediators.

The program has resulted in clearing as many as 90% of the debt collection lawsuits filed in Lubbock County from the justices’ dockets, according to the report. Both defendants and plaintiffs “love” the program, according to Gene Valentini, the director of the Lubbock County Office of Dispute Resolution.

Judge Jim Hansen, who is also a trained mediator, praised the success of the program.

Mediators “take both sides and they meet in the middle a lot, which we as judges, it’s more difficult to do that because we’re really not supposed to be bargaining on behalf of the defendant,” he said.

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