More Access to Justice :: Volunteer-Based Civil Court Mediation Program Expands

Written by Randy Westgate

April 2019 marked the end of the first full year of Wisconsin Judicare’s Mediation Program working with the Marathon County court system. Thanks in large part to the leadership of the County’s judges and the project’s volunteer mediators, the program is providing FREE mediation services to citizens in a variety of civil (non-criminal) cases.

Why Mediation?

More and more people are entering the civil court system without an attorney simply because they can’t afford one. They enter a system they don’t understand and face ramifications that can have a significant impact on their lives and those of their families.

Mediation provides a process that can help parties work out their problems as an alternative to court involvement. Parties can forge a solution that both sides agree to and take ownership of — sometimes in unique and creative ways.

Expanded Program Scope

In its first year, the Volunteer Mediation Program in Marathon County provided mediation services in small claims cases including eviction and housing cases, debtor/creditor cases, and all manner of disputes under $10,000. (Learn more “Let’s See if We Can Work This Out :: Civil Court Mediation.)

Our local program now has over 30 trained volunteer mediators, most of whom are not attorneys.

Several of Marathon County’s trained volunteer mediators appeared at the Marathon County Courthouse on July 16, 2019, in an attempt to reach settlements and avoid the parties having to appear in court. FRONT ROW (L to R): Kathy Thurs, Randy Westgate. BACK ROW (L to R): Hydiei Laughlin, Donna Hackman, and Ernie Foley.

Approximately 100 cases in Marathon County last year were offered mediation, with 75% of the cases mediated resulting in voluntary settlements — without the need for the case to go before our already overloaded courts.

Based on these results, County judges recently expanded the program to include mediation in all eviction and property dispute cases, as well as all small claims cases in front of judges and court commissioners. In addition, the judiciary has begun a pilot program to offer mediation in certain non-violent, non-domestic harassment cases.

With this expansion, the program will mediate over 400 cases in its second year — all before necessitating significant court involvement. Assuming that every case impacts numerous other people and family members, we estimate that thousands of people in Marathon County could benefit from mediated court cases.

Cost Savings

Judge Gregory Strasser, who represents the judiciary in leading the mediation effort, recently reported on the results to the County’s Public Safety Committee. Judge Strasser told the committee that mediation not only helps people resolve their own disputes, but also saves the County a significant amount of money:

Judge Gregory Strasser

“Every case that gets settled before it reaches a judge or commissioner results in more time for us to handle the backload of cases that we face every day. Courts and the supporting County agencies are already overwhelmed with criminal and drug cases, and using mediation to reduce caseloads has a real impact.”

Emotional & Other Benefits

Most people are skeptical of mediation when they first hear of it. Many say “This isn’t going to work. I can’t talk to them. They don’t listen.” But mediation is a process in which each party gets to tell his or her story and then the mediator offers various ways to resolve the dispute. No one is forced into anything, no legal advice is provided, and both sides must agree to any resolution. If an agreement is reached, it’s filed with the court and is enforceable if violated.

Mediations are often emotional sessions with both sides entrenched in the beginning. More often than not, the telling of the stories, along with the release of emotions, allows the parties to be able to focus on resolving the issues rather than replaying the past. Frequently, legal disputes involve conflict within families or people who have had past relationships, and mediation not only solves legal problems but also helps resolve longstanding personal issues.

Overwhelmingly, people report that the mediation process gave them better results than a trial in court. Judges are limited in their rulings, but mediation opens up a whole other world of possible solutions. For example:

  • In a debt case, the parties might work out a payment arrangement over a period of time.
  • In a housing case, the parties may agree to a move-out date that allows a tenant to avoid an eviction and the landlord to recover the property and past-due rent over time.

Nobody likes conflict, and the chance to resolve their own issues brings many benefits both personally and financially.

Harvard_Law-and-Policy-Review-logoNational Recognition

Mediation is being recognized nationally as a real solution to address the growing problem of access to justice for a large part of the population. Wisconsin Judicare’s Mediation Program was recently mentioned in a Harvard Law & Policy Review article (PDF) as a potential access-to-justice model in rural areas like Marathon County.

Mediation, with its volunteer base, is both an effective and cost-efficient way to address the real consequences of people and families facing eviction, economic trauma, and other conflicts, with lasting consequences for the people involved and for the government units — like Marathon County — who are tasked with the fallout.

Upcoming Volunteer Mediator Training Opportunities

This September, the project will be conducting another round of mediator training (September 23–27 2019). If interested, please contact to apply.

The training is a 40-hour session with additional observation and co-mediation requirements. The time commitment is flexible, but we ask you to be available for a 1- to 2-year period.


The Volunteer Mediation Program in Marathon County looks to provide even more services in the future and would like thank Judge Strasser and the other Marathon County judges for their foresight and leadership in supporting this effort. Appreciation is also extended to our many gifted volunteer mediators who carry out the mediations on the ground level.

Wisconsin Judicare’s Mediation Project has been supported by generous grants from the B.A. and Esther Greenheck Foundation, The Community Foundation of North Central WI, and Ruder Ware, LLC.


Randy-WestgateRandy Westgate

Director | Wisconsin Judicare’s Mediation Project

Randy Westgate, in addition to being the founder and director of Wisconsin Judicare’s Mediation Project, is a pro-bono poverty attorney serving Judicare clients in Wisconsin’s northern 33 counties. Email Randy Westgate.

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