By Anna Berry

 

A program to remind parties of court dates in divorce and parenting mediation cases reduced the failure-to-appear rate by 40 percent in six months — and attorneys say the program is a welcome addition to their practices.

“I don’t think people can be reminded enough,” said attorney John Durkin, of the Law Office of John F. Durkin, Jr., who focuses on family law.

While he already sees a high percentage of clients appear at mediations, Durkin said the new program is particularly helpful for people who don’t have access to computers or smart phones.

Attorney Catherine Shanelaris, of Shanelaris & Schirch, had similar feelings.

“I know the court has a lot of trouble when the parties are unrepresented and those unrepresented parties often do not show up for mediation and don’t pay the mediator,” she said in an email to the Bar News.” The program is a great idea by the court and is an easy and convenient way for the parties to get a reminder about mediation.”

In a press release, the Judicial Branch highlighted cost savings and increased access to justice as additional goals for the program.

“Failing to appear for a court hearing impacts many aspects of our court system,” said Judge David D. King, administrative judge of the Circuit Court, in the release. “Parties are more likely to have their cases delayed and may be required to pay their attorneys for wasted time. The absent party may also face contempt or other consequences. Court staff spends time rescheduling mediations, while the judicial officer involved could have heard another case on an already busy docket. It is clear that decreasing rates of failure-to-appear benefits all who seek access to justice.”

The Circuit Court launched the program in 2018 for individuals scheduled for court-connected mediation in a divorce or parenting case. Individuals who chose to provide the Circuit Court with a cell phone number received three text messages reminding them of their mediation day and time: one each at seven days, three days, and one day before the event. The message also reminded them to bring a financial affidavit (a critical document before any negotiations) to the mediation and provided them the Information Center phone number to call with questions.

Now, the Judicial Branch is planning to expand the program to additional case types within the Circuit Court, as well as the Superior Court, and criminal cases may be next.

“I personally think it is a great idea,” said attorney Donna Brown, of Wadleigh Starr & Peters who is also chair of the Bar’s Criminal Justice Section, in an email to the Bar News. “I do this myself with all of my clients. You would be surprised how many people have ‘spaced out’ their court date and were grateful for the reminder.”