In an effort to make it easier for landlords and their tenants to resolve disputes without the tenant being evicted, the 6th Judicial Circuit launched a six-month pilot program to encourage mediation in January.
Funding for the effort will come from a 2019 Community Economic Development grant from the Foundation to Community Law Program, whose Residential Eviction Access to Justice Project will include working with the 6th Circuit to monitor and evaluate the program and support its expansion countywide.
Historically, once a landlord files a petition to have a tenant evicted, the tenant has to respond in five days and enter the disputed rent in a registry. If the tenant fails to complete either of those two tasks, a judge typically orders the tenant evicted. If, however, the tenant completes those two tasks, the case is set for a hearing.
Under the pilot program, a Pinellas County judge will now ask the landlord and tenant to leave the courtroom to see if they can work out their differences.
“One of the circuit’s contracted mediators will be on hand to assist,” said Michelle Ardabily, chief deputy court administrator for the 6th Circuit. If the two parties can reach an agreement outside court, both will sign a court document to that effect, which the judge can then approve. If they cannot, the judge will proceed to hear the full case.
The pilot program will take place at the courthouse in downtown St. Petersburg, where county judges Edwin Jagger and Lorraine Kelly handle eviction proceedings.
The program is one of the efforts made by the Residential Eviction Access to Justice Collaborative to expand access to justice for those in the community facing eviction. Members of the collaborative have visited eviction mediation programs in the 15th Judicial Circuit in Palm Beach County and in the 18th Circuit in Seminole and Brevard Counties.
In addition to setting up the pilot program, the Collaborative has also successfully worked toward amending eviction notices issued by the Pinellas Clerk of Court to include information regarding inexpensive or free legal aid for beleaguered tenants, according to Kimberly Rodgers, Community Law Program’s executive director.
Ardabily and Rodgers are members of the collaborative, as are various legal aid lawyers, housing officials, and retired judge David Seth Walker.