The Minnesota Court of Appeals is currently operating a pilot project for appellate mediation in family law cases. The pilot program, which began in September 2008, is designed with the goal of decreasing the conflict levels for families, decreasing the costs to litigants and the court, and increasing efficiency and litigation satisfaction. The process is structured to reinforce and work cooperatively with the early-neutral-evaluation and other alternative-dispute processes in the district courts.
Referral to mediation takes place after the statement of the case has been filed and the filing fee has been paid, but occurs before the briefing stage and before litigants incur the substantial costs of ordering transcripts from the district court where the case originated.
Although the mediation involves a cost, which is shared by the appellant and the respondent, our research shows that appellate family-law mediation has a great potential to save litigants significant time and money.
Minnesota Appellate Court Divorce Mediation Questions and Answers
What is Mediation?
Mediation is a flexible, non-binding and confidential process in which an impartial person, the mediator, helps individuals and their attorneys have dialogue that promotes settlement. Mediators:
- Improve communication and enhance understanding between the participants;
- Help participants articulate their needs and understand the needs of others;
- Probe the strengths and weaknesses of each side’s legal positions;
- Identify areas of agreement; and,
- Help generate options for a mutually agreeable resolution to the dispute.
A hallmark of mediation is its capacity to expand traditional settlement discussion and broaden resolution options, often by exploring participants’ needs and interest that may be formally independent of the legal issues on appeal. The mediator generally does not give an overall evaluation of the case.
Why Mediation at the Appellate Level?
The benefits of Minnesota appellate mediation can include:
- Avoids the risk of reversal. There is a chance that the trial court judgment may be reversed on appeal and remanded for further, costly proceedings.
- More satisfactory results. The trial court judgment might not satisfy even the prevailing party. A mediator can assist the parties to achieve their real goals.
- Focus on Children. For issues where children are involved, mediation helps parents focus on their best interests.
- Economical. The mediation process begins at the outset of the appeal. This can save substantial costs of preparing the record and briefs.
- Rapid settlements. Mediation can resolve a dispute in a matter of days, while an appeal takes much longer.
- Allows more client participation. Clients without attorneys participate in the appeals process through written submissions only, and do not have a hearing. Even clients with attorneys can feel frustrated by their restricted role.
- Higher rate of follow through. Parties who have reached their own agreement in mediation are generally more likely to comply with its terms than those whose resolution has been imposed upon them.
- Reduces stress. Mediation encourages cooperation and communication, while discouraging the adversarial atmosphere of litigation.
- Avoids financial risk. A judgment for payment or transfer of property still does not ensure collection.
Who Attends the Divorce Mediation?
All parties to the appeal, and their lawyers if they have them, are required to attend the mediation. Under special circumstances, other arrangements may be made, if acceptable to the mediator and all parties. This requirement reflects the Court of Appeal’s view that the principal values of mediation include affording the litigants opportunities to articulate their wants and needs directly to the other parties and the mediator, and to hear first hand the other party’s wants and needs. Mediation also enables parties to directly discuss opportunities for mutually acceptable solutions.
How Should I Prepare for Minnesota Appellate Court Divorce Mediation?
If you are pro se, you can think about these ideas before attending mediation, or discuss them with someone you trust. Attorneys and clients can discuss these ideas together before attending mediation.
- Understand your goals and needs. Mediation helps parties explore what really matters to them. You can prepare for mediation by thinking about what you need to allow you to resolve the matter. Needs are not just what you WANT the court to do, but also WHY you want it … think about how getting what you want will benefit you and your family?
- Expect the discussion to go beyond the legal issues. Think about what is of highest value to you? It might not be what is in the appeal. For example, sometimes your children’s stability, being respected, a favorable relationship with someone, or end of the stress of litigation can be of equal or higher value than money or principle.
- Prioritize. Think about what interests are most important to you to achieve. Understand where you may be willing to make concessions to get what you most want.
- Think about what the other party needs. Other parties have their own goals and needs. They may overlap with yours, or they may be different. Mediation tries to find creative ways to help both party’s meet many of their needs. Think about questions to ask the other party to understand what is most important to them.
- Create a list of options. Consider a variety of ways to meet your needs, and those of the other party. Be creative and leave the possibility open that you will find more options through your discussions in mediation.
Who Are the Divorce Case Mediators and How Are They Selected?
The twelve-member pilot project panel consists of highly respected mediators. All of them are attorneys, and have many years of family mediation experience, and an understanding of the appellate process. They are qualified family neutrals under the Minnesota General Rule of Practice for the District Courts Rule 114, and have completed additional training on appellate mediation. They agreed to serve on this pilot panel on a sliding fee basis because they want to help people in the appellate process try a different path to resolution. You will receive a list of available mediators and short bios for them when your case is referred to mediation. You then have the opportunity to rank your preference of mediator, or agree together with the other side on who you want to choose.
What Happens if I am Ordered Into Minnesota Appellate Court Divorce Mediation?
An Order for Mediation, Confidential Information Form (“CIF”) and this information sheet is sent to the lawyers and parties who do not have lawyers. The Order stays (stops) the appellate process from moving forward. Transcripts will not be ordered, and briefing will not be scheduled. This is to help parties avoid the costs of the appeal if they are able to reach resolution in mediation. Parties are required to complete the CIF and return it to the Court within 15 days. This form does not become a part of the court record. The form gives parties the ability to opt out of the mediation program with a valid reason. Parties also provide income and asset information to the Court to determine appropriate fees for mediation. The Court will set the fees and refer the case to the mediation coordinator, who will help the parties to select their mediator and schedule a telephone conference with him or her.
Where Can I Get More Information?
Call the Minnesota Appellate Court’s mediation number at 651-296-6739 or visit the Court’s website.