Access to Justice to expand mediation services

Jackson Hole News & Guide

Abraham Lincoln once said, “He who represents himself has a fool for a client.”

However, according to the Teton County Access to Justice Center, in over 80 percent of family-law cases in Teton County District Court at least one party represents themselves. In 36 percent of cases, both parties are self-represented.

While most understand the difficulties of representing themselves, the cost of hiring a lawyer is often too expensive.

In response to this growing problem, the Community Foundation of Jackson Hole awarded a grant to the Justice Center, enabling the nonprofit to offer mediation services to a broader spectrum of the community.

“It’s shocking how many people appear in front of Teton County judges without a lawyer,” said Barbara Prescott, the executive director of the Justice Center. “We have always offered mediation, but our grant from the state doesn’t allow us to help with mediation when the parties are already in litigation. They also had to qualify financially at 200 percent of the federal poverty level or below. With this grant, we can pretty much write our own rules and set our own financial limits.”

Though Lauren Browne, a local attorney and board member at the Justice Center, originally pursued the grant to help with custody cases, “we are going to open it up to other disputes,” she said. “Landlord-tenant disputes are particularly ripe for mediation. With an experienced attorney giving them all of their options, people can usually come to an agreement outside of court. ”

With this new source of funding, the lawyers at the Justice Center can mediate family-law-related matters such as divorce, separation, child custody and visitation; housing matters such as landlord-tenant disputes, evictions and HOA issues; contract or small-claims disputes; and employment matters such as workplace disputes.

The new grant will also allow the Justice Center to offer its services pre-, mid- or post-litigation for families living at or above 300 percent of the federal poverty level.

Three hours of mediation are available at no cost to parties with income levels at 300 percent of the federal poverty level. Any time beyond three hours is the responsibility of both parties at $75 per hour.

For those above 300 percent of the poverty level, a fee of $75 per hour is the responsibility of the parties.

Not only can mediation avoid lengthy and expensive litigation, but if an agreement cannot be reached out of court, mediation lawyers can prepare parties for a legal battle by providing expert legal advice.

“We really hope people take advantage of the program no matter how big or small the dispute is,” Browne said. “There are a lot of benefits to mediation. It’s cheaper, usually faster and there’s a lot less stress. People often don’t account for the emotional toll it takes standing in front of a judge.

“It also usually results in a better outcome than if they went to court, as they don’t have someone else deciding their fate.”

In addition to the recently awarded Community Foundation grant, the Jackson Town Council is considering providing funds to Access to Justice specifically for mediating housing disputes.

The town considered creating an ombudsman position to resolve housing disputes out of court, but because it would be an entirely new position, setting it up is expected to take a substantial amount of time and staff resources. Furthermore, with little to no data on how pervasive landlord-tenant disputes are in Jackson, what an ombudsman’s role would demand remains unknown.

With that in mind, the council suggested the town contract with the Justice Center for at least one year to provide legal aid and to begin to gather data on how many cases are brought forward and what clients’ needs are.

“Our mediation service will is the perfect segue into what the town is considering,” Browne said. “The opportunity to sit down with an experienced lawyer who knows the law and can tell people their rights and responsibilities will be really beneficial to the entire community.”For those interested in learning more about the program, the Teton County Access to Justice Center is hosting an open house from 4 to 6 p.m. April 17 at the Teton County Bar Association law library.

Mediation services for small claims can also be found at the University of Wyoming Extension office in the 4-H building at 255 West Deloney Avenue. The office will also offer a four-day workshop to train mediators from May 1 through 4.