Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Client Spotlight—Evgeni Georgiev & the Regional Court of Sofia

Photo by Jay Welsh

When it comes to building a strong, efficient, multi-door, statewide justice system, the Honorable Evgeni Georgiev takes the long view. Georgiev has been working with other judges, mediators, and lawyers in the Bulgarian capitol of Sofia for four years to create a thriving and effective mediation program in the Regional Court of Sofia. With the help of HNMCP clinical students Emil Andersson LLM ’11 and Sonia Vallabh ’11, and former Clinical Instructor Stephan Sonnenberg ’06, he’s starting to see the results toward which he’s been working.

The Regional Court of Sofia is the largest in Bulgaria, handling about 20% of all cases in the country. In 2009 Judge Georgiev and his colleagues quickly developed a mediation program as a response to changes in Bulgaria’s procedural legislation prompted by an EU directive on mediation mediators. In the summer of 2010, Judge Georgiev contacted HNMCP to develop a more rigorous and efficient system for monitoring and evaluating mediator quality.

The students assessed how quality control was managed in four other jurisdictions: Florida, Ljubljana (Slovenia), California, and Massachusetts. With that data, and in combination with stakeholder interviews, Sonia and Emil made recommendations in five key areas of quality control: co-mediation models, incoming mediator interviews, post-mediation surveys, a response protocol for underperforming mediators, and the governance structure of the quality control program.

This project took place in the Spring Semester of 2011. Recently Judge Georgiev reached out to let us know about the program, post-report, and to tell us of the work that has unfolded since the Sofia/HNMCP project.

HNMCP: Remind us how you learned about HNMCP and why you wanted to work with us?

Evgeni Georgiev: The Settlement and Mediation Center (SMC) at the Regional Court of Sofia (RCS) started to operate on March 1, 2010. We soon identified that the settlement rate was very low—about 20%. The judges believed this was due to the lack of experienced and qualified mediators. We had only a very basic quality assurance mechanism with no clear enforcement structure. The mediators thought that the judges were not referring cases that were appropriate for mediation.

In August 2010 James Kerwin, Assistant Director of the Program on Negotiation, provided a mediation training to a small group of judges and the two coordinators of the SMC. He also connected me to (then-Clinical Instructor) Stephan Sonnenberg and Bob Bordone at HNMCP.

HNMCP: Can you talk about how you shaped the clinical project with HNMCP?

EG: Stephan, my fellow Judge Tsveta Jelijazkova, and I agreed the students would do comparative research on quality assurance mechanisms in other court-annexed programs and prepare a report on this. Then they would analyze our program and propose improvements.

Sonia and Emil interviewed administrators of the different mediation programs. In March Emil and Stephan came to Sofia and spent several days interviewing stakeholders of the SMC—mediators, judges, coordinators, and attorneys.  Bulgarian students from the RCS Internship Program interpreted for them.

Next Sonia and Stephan came to Sofia. This time we organized a meeting of fifteen stakeholders. The meeting was very skillfully facilitated by HNMCP. At this meeting we discussed key aspects of the quality assurance mechanism, such as: initial selection of mediators; data collection and evaluation; who should evaluate the information; and what support mechanisms for improving mediators’ skills were in place. Sonia and Stephan structured the meeting based on research and information from previous interviews.

In May the HNMCP team sent us a report with proposals for improving our quality assurance mechanism.

HNMCP: What about this project did you find most challenging?

EG: The linguistic aspects were very time-consuming. All of our rules and forms were written in Bulgarian and some of the stakeholders in Bulgaria did not speak English. But these efforts were more than justified—not only because of the high quality of the report prepared by HNMCP but also because it helped us in two aspects not targeted by the project. First, we had to translate all of our important documents into English for the students. A benefit from this was that we could then let the world know about our program through our website. We became visible not only in Bulgaria, but also in the mediation world abroad. Second, about seven of our law interns got involved in the project. Through it they learned about mediation and were able to converse with students from Harvard.

HNMCP: What, from your perspective, was the most interesting part of the work?

EG: The most beneficial and interesting part of the project was the stakeholder meeting Sonia and Stephan facilitated. This was the first meeting where all stakeholders could talk openly but respectfully to each other and come to conclusions important for the SMC.

Generally people are afraid to work in big groups, feeling that large group work only brings chaos and non-productivity. The facilitated meeting demonstrated exactly the opposite—that group discussions, when structured and facilitated skillfully, are very beneficial, increasing both the transparency of the decision-making process and the stakeholder’s involvement in it.

HNMCP: How did the work of this project influence further development at SMC?

EG: Well, the power of the facilitated meeting was used as a model for redesigning the whole SMC administration.

Secondly, we considered this project to be an integral part of the bigger project funded by America for Bulgaria Foundation, implemented by the Professional Association of Mediators in Bulgaria. Our work with ABF was to 1) improve the administration of the program; 2) increase the awareness about mediation with judges and decision-makers; and 3) provide for a stable increase in the cases referred to mediation.

In this light, we began implementing HNMCP’s work by redesigning the administration of the program to provide for more transparency and involvement of mediators in the decision making. A committee of SMC mediators and judges from the RCS and Sofia City Court was formed, with subcommittees working on quality assurance and statistics, family mediation, and publicity.

The committee, driven by the energy of its chair Judge Galya, adopted new sets of rules for selecting mediators, selecting a recruiting team, interviewing all candidates, training newly recruited mediators, and analyzing the work of the mediators and providing feedback. We also now use co-mediators.

HNMCP: What work do you still have before you to get the program to the place you really want it to be?

EG: With the help of HNMCP, we laid a sound foundation. Our program, however, mainly relies on the volunteer work of mediators and judges. It seems to me that such type of programs depends a great deal on the enthusiasm of its volunteers. Enthusiasm has many positive aspects, but its main drawback is that it is not a constant value.

Our main challenge will be to convince volunteers to do some of the administrative tasks routinely and thus, to enforce the rules we adopted. If we succeed we will be assured that we have a good program in place that is stable and sustainable.