During the early of the COVID-19 pandemic, many industries slowed or even ground to a halt, causing the federal government to issue an eviction moratorium to help people stay in their homes. However, the moratorium did not stop landlords from filing for evictions, it simply halted court proceedings.
For students in the Georgia State College of Law off-campus Mediation Clinic, the backlog of cases created by the initial shutdown of the courts has only created a greater workload.
“We’ve had to learn a whole new system,” clinic supervisor Bonnie Powell said. “We took advantage of the court shut down to experiment with virtual mediation. It was more than just learning how to schedule a Zoom call. We had to rely on a lot of technology to be able to offer our services to help the court move cases along. Having that extra time last fall was critical for a smooth transition when faced with a tremendous backlog.”
Clinic students typically spend a semester on-site at the Fulton County Justice Center mediating cases between landlords and tenants, but the backlog of cases exists all over the state.
DeKalb County’s dispossessory actions have also piled up, and Powell’s access to a large pool of mediators, many of whom are current and former students, made her an important member of the group assembled to find a plan to handle the cases as quickly and efficiently as possible.
“The students are the reason I was able to be a part of this discussion in DeKalb,” Powell said. “In a few months after the students graduate, and they no longer have the demands of a rigorous schedule, they will be able to take on some of these cases and can do so with confidence.”
As much as students have helped ease the burden on the courts, they have also benefitted from continuing to gain in-court experience in a time when many opportunities have been curtailed.
Student mediators have handled cases with both parties physically present in court, cases with both parties on a Zoom call, and cases with one part in person and the other virtual, providing mediators with experience handling every possible configuration of the current legal climate.
“Especially during the time right now with court closures and the pandemic, we still get some very real in-court experience,” said student Graham Gordon (J.D. ’21). “We get to be in front of judges, and even with the Zoom stuff, it’s great to get experience in that way. There’s really not a lot of that [type of opportunity] going on anywhere else.”
Experience is not the only benefit to student mediators, though.
Each student in the clinic is registered as a mediator in the state of Georgia, and when not mediating for class credit, students have the opportunity to mediate for compensation while still honing the skills that can help in any career field.
“I’m working with attorneys, clerks and judges and listening to calendar calls and seeing how the process actually works in the courthouse literally every day in the clinic,” said student Sarah Knox (J.D. ’21). “It was also a great experience in terms of drafting contracts. [Our supervisors] have been great about teaching us how to write documents in the way that judges want. I think that’s really a great skill that I’ll be able to use in legal drafting in the future.”
Written by Alex Resnak