Mediators raise concerns about online eviction mediation program

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Posted at 10:42 PM, Jul 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-11 00:43:20-04

This article was written by Margaret Carmel with BoiseDev.

A new pilot program from the Idaho State Supreme Court will allow Ada County tenants and landlords to try and resolve eviction cases online before they hit mediation.

Starting this week, an online portal opened allowing landlords and tenants to communicate virtually to try and resolve their dispute before they come to court for an official mediation process or for a judgment.

Court officials say this will give tenants another opportunity to work out a deal to avoid an eviction proceeding, but mediators and mediators are concerned virtual communication is not effective and can further inflame tensions.

[Jesse Tree: Evictions continue in Treasure Valley despite federal moratorium]

How does it work?

The service allows the parties to talk virtually prior to the court date about their dispute, including about payment of owed rent, and has pointers for tenants to access resources from nonprofits for help. The Idaho Supreme Court will provide information on how to access the system when cases are filed.

If the online discussion isn’t fruitful, then tenants and landlords will still go to in-person mediation or a trial.

“We hope this service will help ensure landlords and tenants are aware of the financial assistance available to them, and that they have every opportunity to resolve their dispute in a way that satisfies both parties,” Ada County Magistrate Judge Adam Kimball said in a press release.

Concerns raised

Others aren’t so sure.

Ali Rabe, executive director of eviction prevention nonprofit Jesse Tree, said this tool gives another chance for landlords and tenants to come to a deal and better alerts them to resources, but online conversation can’t replace in-person interaction.

“We always encourage tenants to speak with their landlords in person and be good communicators through the process,” Rabe said. “Research shows in-person mediation is far more effective than online.

The Idaho Mediation Association sent a letter to the Idaho Supreme Court outlining concerns with the program, including concerns about confidentiality and cited 50% resolution rates with this software system as opposed to the nearly 100% resolution rates for in-person mediation at Ada County.

The organization’s president Carol Barkes said the majority of communication is non-verbal, which is left out of online conversations like this. The online program might help wrap up more simple matters, but she is worried it could make communication even harder for tenants already at a disadvantage. This can make people who are already in a conflict even more angry at each other, making the eventual in-person mediation or trial even more contentious.

“In my area of expertise of neuroscience, when we have a tenant (facing eviction) they’re in their total fight or flight survival mode,” Barkes said. “They’re terrified so their brains aren’t working really well, they’re maybe yelling at their landlord and the landlords are getting mad because they haven’t gotten the money that’s owed and it becomes this cycle of talking at each other instead of talking with them. With a virtual system, the ability to guide that in a way that talks people off the cliff is not there.

A more structured conversation

Nate Poppino, spokesperson for the Idaho Supreme Court, said this technology is being used in other court systems across the country and its effectiveness is currently being studied by the National Center for State Courts. He said the extra connection to resources and another chance for a resolution will be especially helpful as the federal eviction moratorium ends on July 31.

“There are a couple of differences that we hope might improve the chance of an agreement,” Poppino wrote in an email. “The conversation is structured, with the system guiding users through the steps to propose and refine an agreement.”

“The system also alerts users to the public resources that exist for paying rent, particularly the federal funds for tenants of certain income levels who had trouble paying rent due to the pandemic. If the parties were unaware of those funds, learning of them may change the conversation.”