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A Mediation Story about Access to Justice

John M Barkett


  • Mediators serve a role in access to justice.
  • Access to mediators can be as important as access to courts.
A Mediation Story about Access to Justice
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Mediators serve a role in access to justice. Here’s a story to make my point.

A few years ago, I receive a call just after Thanksgiving from a woman named Frances.

“Mr. Barkett?”

“Yes,” I said.

“I need a free mediator.”

“Why do you need a free mediator?” I asked.

“Because I have been ordered to mediation, and I do not have the money to pay for a mediator.”

“And how did you get my name?” I asked.

“I looked at the list of the federal court mediators. I called everyone whose last named began with ‘A.’ They all turned me down. So I started calling those with ‘B,’ and that’s how I got your name.”

“Why are you a party in federal court?” I asked.

“Because the government is claiming that I have not paid my student debt.”

At that point, I told her to let the Department of Justice lawyer representing the Department of Education know that I would serve as a “free” mediator, but the mediation had to take place on Monday, December 21. I thought the Christmas spirit might help Frances.

At the mediation, I learned that Frances allegedly owed $4,000 from a loan made in 1990. With interest and attorney fees, that amount had ballooned to over $12,000. The case was farmed out to a collection lawyer. I asked when the referral was made and was told it was six years earlier. I asked why suit had not been brought sooner and was told that the collection law firm was overwhelmed with files and could not get around to bringing suit earlier. What about laches? It was not an available defense against the government, I was told. And the statute of limitations? Congress abrogated it because of the backlog of cases not yet filed, I was told.

Frances was a solid citizen who had a run of hard luck. She had not received any mail regarding the debt because the government had her mother’s address, and her mother did not remember ever receiving any mail for Frances. It was only when she had to move back in with her mother that she finally became aware of the alleged debt and then was served. She did not believe she owed any money, but more than 20 years had passed since she took out the loan, and she had no documents to prove she had paid it.

I was able to help Frances settle the matter for one-half of the amount due. She had to pay $10 a month until she could find work to pay off the settlement amount, or else a judgment would be entered against her for the original amount due.

Before the mediation, I happened to mention the situation to a generous client. He asked me to let him know how things turned out. I did so. The next day he hand-delivered a check payable to the United States Treasury paying off the entire settlement amount.

I sent Frances a letter with all of the settlement papers that had been filed in court. I also included a copy of the check and told her that her debt had been paid by a generous client who wished her a merry Christmas.

She received the letter on Christmas Eve. I still get goosebumps when I recall what I heard when I took the call from Frances. She was sobbing.

“Thank you. Thank you. I cannot thank you enough. Thank you. Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me, Frances,” I told her. “I am happy that you found me and I happened to have a generous client. The real thanks, though,” I said, “go to all of those mediators whose names began with an ‘A’ that turned you down.”

Access to mediators can be as important as access to courts. And good things can happen when we make an effort to provide justice for all.