Volunteer attorneys recruited by the Howard County Circuit Court will try to settle some of the court's 1,000 pending divorce cases during three days of precedent-setting mediation in mid-March.
Ten domestic relations lawyers will meet with divorcing couples and their attorneys March 18-20 in rooms in and around the courthouse to try to resolve "60 cases we think are susceptible to mediation," said Judge Cornelius F. Sybert Jr., who contacted the state bar association about setting up the program.
He said the Howard County program and a similar one in the city of Baltimore are the first attempts in the state to mediate a large number of divorce cases at once. Baltimore will try to settle 1,000 domestic and civil cases in November.
Five other Maryland jurisdictions, including Montgomery County and Baltimore, began similar volunteer mediation programs last year for non-domestic civil cases.
These mediation sessions, first tried in Ohio five years ago and now springing up around the country, are known as "settlement week" and are aimed at eliminating court backlogs.
In addition to the divorce cases, Howard County will attempt to remove 240 civil cases from the docket in this manner in March. Thirty volunteer attorney mediators will hear negligence disputes, contract claims, automobile accidents and the like, Sybert said.
Sitting judges will be available to put any settlements on record, he said.
"We want to do this at least once a year, if it is successful," Sybert said. Montgomery already is holding "settlement week" four times a year, he said.
He said the volunteer mediators, who will be experienced in domestic and civil cases, will be given the files on the cases around the first of the year.
The goal of the program, he said, is to settle about 150 cases during the three days, for a success rate of 50 percent.
Nationally, the success rate in such programs averages 43 percent, said Anne Arundel County Circuit Court Judge James C. Cawood Jr., co-chairman of the state bar association mediation project.
During last year's two-day experiment in "settlement week" in Maryland, 49 percent of the civil cases were disposed of, he said. "We ended up doing more cases than were ever done at one time: 892," Cawood said.
Although two domestic cases ended up by mistake on Montgomery County's settlement week list last year, divorces have not been included in similar programs around the country, Cawood said.
Howard County's proposal was "something new," he said. "My thought was: If you want to try it and can get the right people, let's see what happens. They indicated they had some really good domestic lawyers who were willing to do this."
Sybert said the mediators, who will not be paid, have not yet been chosen.
Domestic relations mediation, by psychologists and other professionals, has become available around the country in recent years but is "strictly confidential" and is typically limited to matters of child custody and visitation, Cawood said. "Most of the larger counties have some sort of system" to provide the service, he said, but Howard does not.
"This program in Howard will be an attempt to try to see if the entire case can be settled," Cawood said. " . . . It's an interesting start, and it may lead to something extremely important."
Or, he said, given the sticky nature of custody arrangements and other divorce matters, "it may not."