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San Francisco Superior Court is filling a gap in its alternative dispute resolution program this summer with two new options aimed at settling civil cases sooner. By decreasing the number of cases that go to trial or that don’t settle until the last minute, the added programs should ease the burden on the court docket, as well as the financial and emotional toll on litigants, said Presiding Judge Donna Hitchens. The pair of programs is designed to give plaintiffs and defendants a chance to resolve their case shortly after a complaint is filed, before they spend substantial money on litigating, judges said. In San Francisco’s unlimited jurisdiction, non-criminal, non-juvenile cases must go through an ADR process before they reach a mandatory judicial settlement conference or trial, the local rules of the court say. Typically, after four to five months, such lawsuits go through a case management conference, said Commissioner Arlene Borick, who oversees the ADR programs for the court. Most cases then go through one of the court’s three existing ADR programs: judicial arbitration, mediation and the early settlement program. “They’re occurring two to three weeks before trial,” said Judge A. James Robertson II, who co-chairs the court’s ADR committee with Borick. The “judicial mediation program” is expected to be in place in mid-July, and the “voluntary early mediation program” in mid- to late-August, Borick said. The first is a free program geared toward complex civil litigation cases, Borick said. Judges will volunteer to mediate in areas of law they are familiar with, such as employment discrimination, legal or medical malpractice or class actions. Though the plans haven’t been finalized, the concept behind the voluntary early mediation program is to provide litigants with a few free hours with a private mediator that the parties choose from a pre-screened list. “There may be cases that are very deserving that just don’t have the resources to afford private mediation,” Robertson said. But after those initial hours, the parties would pay for any additional mediation hours they need, Borick said. Also, each party would have to pay a $200 fee to participate in the early mediation program to cover the Bar Association of San Francisco’s costs to administer it. People pay the same amount to participate in the court’s early settlement program, which is also a joint effort with BASF, Borick said. Jonathan Hayden, a partner at Heller Ehrman White & McAuliffe who defends consumer class actions, predicts big demand for the new judicial mediation program. “One obvious appeal is it wouldn’t cost anything,” Hayden said. But it won’t be a one-size-fits-all solution, he said. “I think it’s unlikely you’ll be able to get as much time from a sitting judge as from a private judge in JAMS,” said Hayden, referring to the private ADR service. “We’re not going to have as much time as a private mediator is,” said Robertson, noting that judges will still have regular calendars. Because of the current budget environment, the court plans to absorb any additional work from the new programs with current staff, judges said. “My anticipation is there’ll be more demand than we can actually address,” said Hitchens.

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