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Conciliation: A New Form of Dispute Resolution

December 29th, 2014 · No Comments

When people have a disagreement that can’t be resolved by simply discussing the problem, they may end up going to court for a resolution  - especially if the disagreement involves something as important as family issues or large sums of money. Going to court can be very expensive if you hire a lawyer, and it still costs some money (e.g., filing fees) if you don’t hire a lawyer. It’s very time consuming either way, especially if you don’t hire a lawyer.

And it’s not quick; courts are busy, many court systems are underfunded and overburdened, and it can be months or years before your case can be heard. That’s why other methods of resolving disputes have been developed. These other methods are commonly referred to as “Alternative Dispute Resolution” - “ADR” for short – and we discussed them in detail here. Mediation, arbitration, and other forms of ADR use neutral third parties to guide the adversaries to a mutually acceptable solution, faster and cheaper than a court case.

Many courts themselves require parties in certain types of cases – most frequently divorce or child custody cases – to pursue ADR before going to trial; the case then proceeds to trial only if the ADR process doesn’t produce an agreement. Another very common use of ADR is foreclosure mediation, which attempts to help homeowners stay in their homes and at the same time help lenders avoid the cost of a foreclosure action in court. We discussed foreclosure mediation here, here, and here.

ADR is usually intended to fully resolve the dispute. Joe says Fred owes him $10,000. Fred says he doesn’t owe Joe anything. An ADR session may suggest that Fred really owes $5,000, and Fred and Joe agree on that figure. End of story, unless Fred or Joe doesn’t like that suggestion and insists on going to court. However, note that going to court may not be an option if a contract specifies that arbitration is the only method of resolving a dispute; in this situation, the arbitrator’s decision is final.

But many disputes can’t be boiled down to a single issue, and many court cases involve the settling of related issues before the main issue is decided. To accomplish this, the parties file motions with the court, asking the court for a decision on the related issue. The other party may file a motion in opposition, asking for a different decision.

For example, after a civil case is filed, the next step is usually “discovery” in which each side asks the other side to provide documents or sworn testimony about the facts in dispute. One side may file a motion to avoid discussing certain things or turning over certain documents. The other side then files a motion asking the court to compel the discovery. Some motions are filed after the main issues is resolved, such as a motion to modify child support or visitation, filed after the original divorce decree. Motions are normally resolved by the judge in a separate hearing; in cases with a lot of motions, there are a lot of separate hearings that must be scheduled and attended. This can go on for a long time, and the judge’s decision on each motion may be preceded by long presentations, explanations, and arguments from each side.

The Fairfax Law Foundation, a non-profit charitable corporation set up by the Fairfax Bar Association, provides education about the law to the public, community outreach, and free legal services to indigent parties in Virginia’s City of Fairfax and Fairfax County. To help relieve court congestion and delays, and to help parties in court cases resolve related issues faster, the Foundation instituted a unique Conciliation Program to resolve motions and petitions.

The program’s Conciliators are trained, experienced volunteer lawyers. At the request of one or both parties, they help the parties resolve the dispute over the motion outside the courtroom. Scheduling and meeting places are more flexible than in the court system itself; some sessions can be done by telephone or fax. If the parties don’t agree in advance, Conciliators are even available on the day the motion is to be heard. If an agreement is reached, the parties may withdraw their motion, or advise the judge that they have come to an agreement so that the motion can be decided without a protracted argument.

Information about the Fairfax Bar Foundation’s Conciliation Program and many other ADR programs may be found online. The easiest way to find ADR program websites in your area is to check CourtReference’s “Self-Help and Legal Research” category for your court or county.

 

→ No CommentsTags: Court Systems · Courtreference.com · Free Legal Help · New Sites · Virginia

Contacting Courts

November 28th, 2014 · No Comments

When you use a state court directory on CourtReference.com, one of the first things you notice is that we provide contact information – address, phone, and fax – for every state, county, and local trial court in the United States.

Anyone looking for court information online is most likely interested in what types of information are available online from the court. The information sought could be online access to court case records, court calendars, lawyer referral services, downloadable forms, or any of the other online resource categories that we provide via links. The types and sheer volume of information available online is growing so fast that we sometimes expect that any information one might need is on the World Wide Web.

But it’s not. Not every court has all of its cases, or its calendar, or any information at all online. In our post about court websites last month, we discussed the huge variance in the amount and quality of content on court websites (if they exist at all). If you can’t find the court-related information you need online, you must either contact the court directly, or pay a visit. Many court websites provide an e-mail address, perhaps even one for each public-facing employee. Still, most court offices are more accustomed to doing business by telephone; if you call during regular business hours, you are more likely to get an immediate answer by phone than by using e-mail. In-person visits also work well, especially if you need to look at files, posted court calendars, or other types of information that are not available online. That’s why we supply the address and telephone number for every court.

When you call or visit the court, it helps to know the roles of the people at the courthouse – or, as often as not, a separate annex or administrative office building. In a previous post, we described the people you’ll see in a courtroom setting: judge, jury, attorneys, bailiff, court clerk, court reporter, and more.  The only person on that list that most people will ever need to contact or visit is the court clerk. We discussed the various titles and roles of court clerks in another previous post. The court clerk’s office is the public-facing organization of most courts and court systems. If you want to file a case, look up records, or just ask for court-related information, the court clerk’s office is almost always your starting point. Only parties in a lawsuit can talk to the judge, and then only if the other party is present (most often, that means both parties’ lawyers are present). That’s why, when we provide contact information for a court, we usually provide the address, phone, and fax of the court clerk’s office.

As always, there are exceptions. For example, every Ohio county has a Clerk of the Court of Common Pleas. But the Court of Common Pleas in most Ohio counties has separate divisions: General, Domestic Relations, Probate, and Juvenile. The clerk is almost always the clerk of the General and Domestic Relations divisions only; Probate and Juvenile judges serve as their own clerks. In practice, a Probate or Juvenile judge in Ohio will normally have a person or staff to handle clerical duties and interface with the public – but that’s not the Clerk of Court, and not part of the Clerk of Court’s office. When you visit an Ohio county page on CourtReference.com, the contact information for Court of Common Pleas General and Domestic Relations Divisions will normally be for the Clerk of Court; the contact information for Probate or Juvenile Division will be the separate office that serves that Division. In some counties, contact information for Probate or Juvenile Division will be the same as the judge’s contact information, although you probably won’t actually get to talk to the judge.

We provide you with the address and phone number that is most useful for obtaining court records and other court-related information. If you don’t need court information, but just need to know where to go to fight your ticket (or appear for any other trial or court business before the judge), the court clerk is often in the same location as the judge’s chambers and courtroom. In some counties, the historic courthouse may have beautiful courtrooms but insufficient office space for increasing busy clerk’s offices, so there is a separate annex or administration building. If the clerk’s office and courtroom are in separate locations, we provide the clerk’s address and then add (in italics) the location for actual court sessions. Here is an example for a Virginia Circuit Court, and one for an Ohio Municipal Court.

Another exception may be found in some Municipal Courts that serve small populations and may only be open one day a week. These courts may not have a clerk at all; the contact information might be for a town hall – which may or may not be where court is held - or it might be the judge’s home. We covered these here.

If the court’s address includes a post office box, we include it on the same line as the street address. The zip code for the post office box may not be the same as the zip code for the street address; we use the zip code for the post office box, because the zip code is most important for mailing purposes. If the mailing address is a different street number, street, or town than the physical address, we provide the mailing and physical addresses on separate lines. Here is an example from Virginia.

Also bear in mind that courts may change their locations by combining with other courts; we covered the sharing of court services in New Jersey Municipal Courts, consolidation of court systems in several states here, and realignment of Pennsylvania Magisterial District Courts.

If you’re not sure which court you need to contact, the first page of each of our state court guides explains the types of cases that each court handles. Here’s an example from Ohio. Note that in Ohio, if there are multiple Municipal Courts in a county, you also need to know which parts of each county are served by each Municipal Court; we provide that information as needed on each county page, and we explained it in detail here.

 

 

→ No CommentsTags: Court Systems · Courtreference.com · New Jersey · Ohio · Pennsylvania · Virginia

When Court Websites Come Up Short

October 26th, 2014 · No Comments

Businesses, organizations, units of government, even many individuals have websites. It’s no surprise that many courts also have websites. As with any other entity’s website, some court websites are better than others: easier to see what’s there, easier to navigate, with more content.

On some court websites, it’s obvious at first glance how to contact the court by mail and phone, how to search case records and court calendars, how to locate and download the forms you need, and how to pay fines online. An explanation of the court’s process; the types of cases the court handles; and links to court rules, special programs, the law library, and self-help resources are easy to find. Some court websites even include links to related agencies and organizations, such as probation departments, prosecutor’s offices, public defender offices, child support departments, legal aid agencies, and bar associations.

On the other hand, some court websites may include only a phone number or address – which might be incorrect if the website has not been maintained. The great majority of court websites fall somewhere in between content-rich and bare-bones, and in between easy and inscrutable. CourtReference endeavors to bring you all the available content for each court, no matter how difficult it may be to find on the court website – and even when there is no court website at all. We also include related resources from other state and local entities that relate to the court but are not normally found on a court website.

Take, for example a court with no website at all:  Fairfax Municipal Court in Allendale County, South Carolina. Although this court has no website, CourtReference uses multiple online sources to verify the court’s contact information, and it appears on our Allendale County page along with all the other courts in that county. Unless you called the court (using the phone number supplied by CourtReference), you wouldn’t know that you can search Fairfax Municipal Court case records online, and pay your fines and traffic tickets online. If you click the blue ”Online Resources” link under Fairfax Municipal Court, you’ll see our CourtReference page full of resources applicable to Fairfax Municipal Court – note that it includes not only the case record and payment resources unique to Fairfax Municipal Court, but it also includes many statewide resources that can help you understand your legal issues, or to find a lawyer to assist.

Let’s take a look at a court with a bare-bones website. Some Georgia municipal courts have their own content-rich websites, but many use a page from the Georgia state municipal court directory, which only contains contact information. For example, check out Trion Municipal Court in Chattooga County. Since most municipal court cases are traffic-related, you might want to know how to pay your fine. It’s not on the website, but it’s on CourtReference’s Online Resource page for Trion Municipal Court. Scroll down to the bottom of that page, to our Online fine payments category, and you’ll see that you can pay your regular traffic fine online – and if you were speeding a few too many times, you can pay your state-mandated “Super-Speeder” additional fine online too. Also note the many other resources, including “Municipal Court Information” in our Self help, legal research… category, which applies to all GA municipal courts.

Some court websites have links that are not easily noticed, such as these two examples from Brazoria County, Texas. The Clute Municipal Court website doesn’t make it easy to find its online citation payment link (it’s one of the options in the “Online Bill Pay” link at the top of the page). CourtReference has it in our Online fine payments category.

Still in Brazoria County, the Richwood Municipal Court website has its citation payment link in red to catch your attention – but it takes you to the home page of the payment provider, from which you have to navigate to the payment page. The link to Richwood Municipal Court’s online payments on CourtReference’s Online Resources page will take you directly to the payment page; just scroll down to our Online fine payments category. Speaking of Richwood Municipal Court, where is the link to its information about pleas, or the Driving Safety Course? They’re in the drop-down Departments menu but they only appear when you hover over Municipal Court. If you reached that website by searching for “Richwood Municipal Court” you wouldn’t see those links. CourtReference makes them easy to find, in our Self help, legal research… category.

In Decatur County, Georgia, the Bainbridge Municipal Court website has the clerk’s phone number and a brief description of the court, then some unrelated news items, then (if the “news” didn’t stop you) a link to its online fine payment. The court also has a searchable calendar, which is not found on the court website (the “Events Calendar” on that page doesn’t include court dates). It’s on our Online Resources page, in the Dockets, calendars… category.

Finally, in Blackford County, Indiana, the Clerk’s office website has contact information and hours – and very little else. You wouldn’t know from looking at this website that you can search for Blackford County case records online. Indiana has a statewide online record search, which you can find by clicking the “Online Resources” link under Blackford County Circuit Court or Superior Court. From our Online Resources page, you’ll find the case record search link in our Searching Case Records category – along with other searches including protective order records. In our other categories, you can check the court calendars and find links to laws, court rules, legal help, and forms.

I could go on and on about how much information you can find on CourtReference. Just because a court has a website doesn’t mean you can find it easily online. When you do find it, it may note have all the information you desire. On CourtReference, you can click once to select a state, click once to select a county, and voila! – the court contact information, a direct link to its website (if it has one), and links to many more helpful resources than you are likely to find on the best court websites.

 

 

→ No CommentsTags: Court Calendars · Court Systems · Courtreference.com · Finding Court Records · Georgia · Indiana · Ohio · Technology · Texas · Uncategorized