2C residents had a tool to avoid eviction. Now, judges want to make it permanent.

Mediation services free up judges in Idaho’s busiest judicial district

By: - April 1, 2021 4:35 am
Eviction notice

Of the $46.5 billion approved by Congress to help renters who fell behind on payments amid the pandemic, only $5.1 billion had been distributed by the end of July, according to Treasury data. (Courtesy of Getty Images)

As Canyon County begins its budgeting process for the 2022 fiscal year, one line item housing advocates are hoping to see included is mediation services for the magistrate court. 

Officials with Idaho’s Third District Court, which encompasses Adams, Canyon, Gem, Owyhee, Payette, and Washington counties, asked Carol Barkes to lead the program in November. Barkes, who directed mediation services in Idaho’s Fourth District Court from 2014 to 2020, now works for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as a dispute resolution adviser.

Third District Administrative Judge George Southworth said magistrates identified funding from the CARES Act stimulus bill in 2020 that could be used to implement a mediation program. That would assist with the resolution of about 40 eviction cases per month, Third District Magistrate Judge Susan Clark told the Idaho Press. Clark said the program helped tenants and landlords avoid an eviction hearing 76% of the time

“Our courts are the busiest courts in the state of Idaho, and if you resolve enough cases through mediation without having to have a hearing, it saves time for judges to get on with the rest of the calendars and the rest of the cases they are handling,” Southworth said.

Mediation takes place outside of court, but is sometimes ordered by a judge before a trial can take place to see if the issue can be resolved by discussion between the two parties. It is often ordered in child custody disputes, and those services are often made available by the court. 

A few courts around the state offer mediation services for small claims and civil cases, but Ada County is the only court that offers mediation for eviction court cases. All of the mediators are Boise State University interns or volunteers with formal training, including former judges. 

“All of the eviction court cases are sent to mediation, assigned right at the court hearing,” said Michael McLennan, mediation coordinator for Ada County small claims court. 

When the CARES funding ran dry at the beginning of the year, mediation services in Canyon County came to a halt. Southworth said a budget line item to continue the program will depend on the Board of Canyon County Commissioners’ approval during the 2022 budget cycle.

“It’s something we are investigating and trying to do,” Southworth said.

Barkes said mediation is “an incredible cost saver” that can prevent backlogs in the court system with cases that could be resolved through communication. Despite population growth in Idaho’s Fourth District, which includes Ada, Boise, Elmore and Valley counties, Barkes said eviction and small claims court cases remained relatively flat.

“We think that’s because with mediation, not only are we resolving cases, but we’re teaching people how to communicate better,” she said.

During mediation for eviction, Barkes said the parties can negotiate a timeline or repayment of rent, or whatever terms are amenable to both sides. In more than 90% of mediation cases, she said the issue can be resolved without a court hearing.

“Mediation doesn’t have to follow the law, it has to follow what people are willing to agree upon,” she said.

Ali Rabe, executive director of nonprofit housing assistance organization Jesse Tree, said mediation is also in the best interest of the tenant and their future housing prospects.

“Having an eviction on a tenant’s record really operates like a criminal background,” Rabe said. “Any landlord or employer can look it up, and it also ruins their credit score. So first and foremost, we’re trying to keep them from getting that eviction on their record, which will prevent them from getting housing in the future.” 

While Canyon County may implement the program on its own, Barkes wishes it was an option across all of Idaho’s seven judicial districts.

“I really would like the (Idaho) Supreme Court to require mediation in all districts for (evictions), because we could resolve more than 90% of cases without them needing to have a trial,” Barkes said. “We have the processes in place, and the fact that we can mediate all over the state via Zoom makes it very approachable.”

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Kelcie Moseley-Morris
Kelcie Moseley-Morris

Kelcie Moseley-Morris is an award-winning journalist who has covered many topics across Idaho since 2011. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Idaho and a master’s degree in public administration from Boise State University. Moseley-Morris started her journalism career at the Moscow-Pullman Daily News, followed by the Lewiston Tribune and the Idaho Press.