Wednesday December 26, 2012

KEITH WHITCOMB JR.

Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- A program that helped pay mediators for small claims in Vermont's Superior Courts has been cut, and will be reevaluated to see if it can be put back at a lower cost.

$2.5 million deficit

Patricia Gabel, deputy state court administrator, said the small claims mediation program was funded in six counties, Bennington being one of them, and the savings from the program will been seen in the fiscal year 2013 budget. She said the Judiciary is facing a $2.5 million budget deficit and is seeking ways to close it. Aside from program cuts, voluntary furlough days may be offered to court employees in addition to their normal leave time.

Around 2009 the Judiciary had instituted non voluntary furlough days and half day closings once a week for courts. Gabel said such measures interfere with the public's right to have access to justice and are to be avoided.

The mediator program allowed the state to offer subsidies to mediators who would try to get small claims settled between parties without taking up court time or a judge's.

"We were not able to detect a major difference between the courts that had mediators and courts that didn't," said Gabel.

She said anyone can still hire a mediator, as the practice has long been used in courts between parties willing to seek mediation on their claims. Gabel said the idea behind the mediator program was to encourage mediation and perhaps save money by taking up less court time.

Gabel said it's likely the Judiciary will examine the program and look for a way to streamline it and make it work, using what it now knows about how it functioned. She said one theory is it didn't reduced the size of docket loads because those cases were still being mediated in court and were placed on scheduled with other cases.