Alternate Court Services: Timely Resolution in a Time of Need

by Hon. Jason Harper, Mediator, Arbitrator & Special Master

 

A year ago, I stepped down from full-time judicial service after a decade on the bench and accepted senior judge status at the age of 45. I did this to return to my passion of alternative dispute resolution. I had been a mediator before becoming a judge and found it very rewarding. It was my privilege to join Miles Mediation & Arbitration and to get to work alongside folks such as my friend and former judicial colleague, Susan Forsling. When I “retired” from the bench, I let judges across the state know that if I wasn’t mediating at Miles, I would be glad to fill in for them. This allows me to keep my finger on the pulse of how juries react and how courts function in differing venues. “Have gavel, will travel!” That was my motto in the judicial realm.

 

During the year working at Miles Mediation & Arbitration, I have encountered many attorneys and parties seeking to resolve their cases outside the courtroom. Though I may be biased, I am sure those of you who have mediated at Miles would agree, the office is not only inviting physically but it is filled with neutrals and clients who have vast experience in their fields. Even if a particular attorney may not be mediating with me, it is a privilege come in to the office and to get to interact with many superb and well-known attorneys. One morning I was in the lobby chatting with a jovial fellow that could easily rival Matlock in his genteel nature. It was only a few moments into the conversation that I realized I was speaking to a former governor of our great state. Unfortunately, with COVID-19 the opportunity for these physical interactions has temporarily ceased.

 

“Technology is Great! Let’s Mediate”

At Miles, we were prepared for the challenge that arrived. We have seamlessly moved to virtual mediations using Zoom. Just this coming week I will conduct three virtual mediations where everyone is in their own location, yet we can all see and communicate with one another. Counsel and their clients even have their own virtual breakout rooms for private communications. Instead of “Have gavel, will travel.”, I have begun to say, “Technology is great! Let’s mediate!” And all of us at Miles stand ready to mediate cases  just as we did before this pandemic began. However, for some of our clients, they may have issues that go beyond mediation. We can still help.

 

Limited Court Functions

On March 14, 2020, Chief Justice Harold Melton issued an “Order Declaring Judicial Emergency.” While the order did not close any court, it in essence shut down court proceedings except for those deemed essential, which ground many of your cases to a halt. The Emergency Order directed to the extent possible, courts should at minimum, “address essential functions, and in particular courts should give priority to matters necessary to protect health, safety, and liberty of individuals. Essential functions are subject to interpretation; however, some matters that fall into the essential function category are: (1) where an immediate liberty or safety concern is present requiring the attention of the court as soon as the court is available; (2) criminal court search warrants, arrest warrants, initial appearances, and bond reviews; (3) domestic abuse temporary protective orders and restraining orders; (4) juvenile court delinquency detention hearings and emergency removal matters; and (5) mental health commitment hearings.”

 

How are courts across the state handling the essential matters delineated in the Emergency Order? Just as we are conducting virtual mediations here at Miles, courts across Georgia are holding virtual hearings, primarily in criminal cases, via video conferencing to minimize physical contact. While Justice Melton’s order extended many deadlines and statutes of limitation, it did not address “urgent matters” that may arise in your case.

 

The Georgia Board of Court Reporting followed the Chief Justice’s order by extending the 120 day filing requirement on transcripts. It also pointed to its own Advisory Opinion 2020-01, which advised that there is no prohibition on a court reporter administering an oath virtually by written consent of the parties, so as to allow for virtual depositions or virtual take-down of hearings.

 

There are two certainties for all cases that cannot be resolved through mediation and must proceed to trial. First, cases will not be heard, or tried, by the court system during the shutdown. Unfortunately, we do not know how long this will last. Second, once courts reopen, there will be a huge backlog of cases awaiting hearings or placement on trial calendars. I have encountered clients who were on the eve of trial only to now be in an unknown holding pattern.

 

Alternate Court Services

There are many of you who may have may have issues to address such as civil protective orders, an urgent matter related to a discovery issue, a visitation issue with children, a support issue…or countless other possibilities. Some of you may be ready to try your case.

 

At Miles, we are more than mediators. We are neutrals. Many of us are registered under Georgia Supreme Court rules to arbitrate your cases and many of us serve as special masters. O.C.G.A. 9-9-1 through 9-9-18 sets forth the Georgia Arbitration Code. To keep your case moving during the shutdown, or even to avoid the backlog once court operations resume, the Georgia Arbitration Code allows you to consent to send your civil or domestic case to arbitration in whole for final resolution, or in part for such things as motions. Domestic arbitrations can include child custody issues, in addition to property division. Likewise, you can consent to have your case sent to a Special Master for the handling of specific issues in the case. During my last special master appointment here at Miles, we managed to go beyond the issue at hand and reach a consent final order resolving the entire issue without the need for a trial.

 

Learn more about Alternate Court Services

At Miles Mediation & Arbitration, we know each case is important to those involved and often a timely resolution is needed, whether by mediation or adjudication. We stand ready to assist you and your clients in these uncertain times by providing mediation, arbitration and special master services virtually. When normal operations resume, we are happy to welcome you back to our facilities or to continue to work with you virtually.

 

 

About Hon. Jason Harper

Hon. Jason T. Harper is a certified mediator and arbitrator, specializing in products liability, professional liability, premises liability, false advertising, commercial, nursing home, and other general liability claims, as well as domestic cases.