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September 20, 2014

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Mediation an attractive option in hard times

It’s not court, but it does settle legal disputes — and it’s free

On the sixth floor of a building across the street from the county courthouse is an office where people can deal with their legal disputes without lawyers, judges or reams of court documents.

The Clark County Neighborhood Justice Center has a staff of full-time and volunteer mediators all with one goal in mind — bring people together to resolve disputes in a collaborative rather than an adversarial setting.

But its biggest selling point of all is it’s free. No wonder the number of cases handled by the center has risen by 26 percent over past year.

It’s largely “because of the declining economy,” Leah Ellenhorn Stromberg, the center’s supervisor, explains.

To resolve disputes with landlords, neighbors, creditors, employers and even business partners, more people are turning to mediation because “they don’t want to spend money to go to court,” she says.

The Neighborhood Justice Center was born from legislation in 1991 that authorized tax dollars for alternative resolutions to disputes as a way to help relieve the congested courts.

Today the center operates on a $1.2 million annual budget that comes from court fees.

Stromberg has staffers assigned to small claims and justice courts throughout the valley, preaching the benefits of mediation to anyone who’ll listen.

And when a new civil law self-help center for people representing themselves in court opens at the county courthouse next month, she’ll have a mediator there, too.

In all, about half of the mediation center’s business is picked up from the courts, Stromberg says.

“We tell people that a negotiated settlement where they have collaborated and come to their own resolution enables them to get a better result than going to court,” she notes. “You can go to court and get a judgment, but that doesn’t mean you will be able to collect that judgment.

“Here, we try not to have winners and losers. The bottom line is people are looking for relief. And they’re looking for satisfaction and closure, and we facilitate that.”

Stromberg says no case is really too small for mediation, which is why a big part of the center’s business involves working out disputes between neighbors. Whatever the conflict — a dog barking too loud, a car parked in the wrong space — the center will take the case.

Lately, the center has been seeing a lot of cases in which landlords and tenants are at loggerheads.

“It’s more of a level playing field now,” Stromberg says. “In the past there has been a feeling that the landlords hold all the cards. But now it behooves the landlords to works things out with their tenants because they need the business.”

Mediation is fast, private and easy to arrange, Stromberg explains. It can be scheduled in as little as 24 hours.

And, with agreements reached in 80 percent of the cases, it has a high success rate.

“We’re all about empowering people to solve their own problems,” she says.

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