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Matrimonial mediation pilot program starts in Brooklyn

Brooklyn Bar Association CLE Helps Get Lawyers Up to Speed on New Rules

January 11, 2019 By Rob Abruzzese Brooklyn Daily Eagle

Starting on Tuesday, Brooklyn will be one of three locations in the state that will begin a presumptive matrimonial mediation pilot program in which couples seeking to get a divorce will go through a mediation session before going to court.

That program was the subject of a Brooklyn Bar Association Continuing Legal Education seminar on Tuesday with a panel that included Hon. Jeffrey Sunshine, the statewide coordinating judge for matrimonial cases; Jean Norton;, Carrie Anne Cavallo, the president of the Brooklyn Women’s Bar Association; Aimee Richter, the immediate past president of the Brooklyn Bar Association; and RoseAnn C. Branda, executive partner at Abrams Fensterman and co-chair of the BBA Family Law Section.

Originally slated to last for 50 minutes, Justice Sunshine and the group were there for at least 75 minutes speaking with more than 60 attorneys who attended the program.

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“Presumptive mediation is based upon the concept that all cases in both my part and Judge Rachel Adams’ part will be presumed eligible for mediation unless a party opts out or is screened out,” said Justice Sunshine. “They can be screened out because of domestic violence allegations or possible power imbalances.

“In the CLE, we highlighted that there would be one mandated 90-minute mediation session free of charge with either a private mediator from a panel of volunteers; through community dispute resolution programs such as the New York Legal Assistance Group or the Cardozo Law School Mediation Clinic; or a program run by Brooklyn Legal Services.

“The court system is not going to impose mediation mandatorily past this one session,” Justice Sunshine went on to say. “It just gives the parties an opportunity to see if they can come to agreements in mediation. Then they can either figure it all out in that one session, continue mediation, or take the matter to court.”

The parties involved can opt out of mediation at any time for any reason, with no questions asked.

The program is going to be run in Brooklyn as well as Suffolk County and Rochester. All three pilot programs are going to be slightly different, but the goal behind them all is similar — to speed up the divorce process and allow the courts to focus on more difficult cases.

“There will always be cases that have to be litigated, but there are other cases where mediation is a far better alternative and quicker,” Sunshine said.

Cavallo explained that she has had difficulty getting clients to agree to mediation in the past when it was voluntary, but that she welcomes the program because more often going to court isn’t necessary, she said.

“People think that it won’t work or they have negative feelings towards mediation, I’ve even heard some attorneys who are afraid that it means that they’ll be cut out of the process, but this will resolve cases and be more cost-effective for people because it will save them time and money,” Cavallo said. “The courts are so overburdened that this will give them time to spend with cases that actually need their attention and resources.”

All cases in Justice Sunshine’s part and Justice Adams’ part are eligible for mediation, although Justices Sunshine and Adams aren’t taking cases personally.

The first 90-minute session is free and provided by the court with the help of volunteer mediators. The only exceptions are that cases are screened by the Family Court for domestic violence issues or issues involving a power imbalance between the parties.

After a few months, Sunshine said that he and others involved will evaluate the program in Brooklyn and the other two locations to see what worked and what didn’t. If all goes well, they expect to eventually expand this statewide.

“One of the things I dislike is the concept that we’ve always done [something] so we have to continue to do it this way,” said Justice Sunshine. “But just because we’ve always done it one way doesn’t mean there aren’t other tools in our toolbox that can get the job done more efficiently.”

Justice Sunshine helped to coordinate this project along with Lisa Courtney, the ADR coordinator for the NYS Unified Court System; Jean Norton, director of the Collaborative Family Law Center; Natasha Pasternack, Supreme Court social worker assigned to the matrimonial part; Justice Adams and Administrative Judge Lawrence Knipel.

“This was the work of a lot of people to put this together,” Sunshine said. “It wouldn’t have happened without the support of Administrative Judge Lawrence Knipel and Rachel Adams.”

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