Nov. 3, 2021 – Ronald Westgate has run Wisconsin Judicare’s mediation program since its inception. The program offers services to people facing small-claims and eviction actions, as well as those subject to court-ordered mediations.
Westgate, who goes by Randy, said the program is vital to freeing up scarce judicial resources and helping clients navigate an often byzantine and unfamiliar system.
“It’s all in an effort to be able to help the court system unclog and give people more access to justice in a way they can appreciate and understand, especially in small claims. These days, small claims is $10,000 – that’s a lot of money to a lot of people.”
The pandemic forced the program to begin conducting mediations via Zoom. Westgate said the move was a boon to the program’s clients.
“The litigants really liked that," Westgate said. "They don’t like to come to court, they don’t like to be a part of the legal process. They have a really difficult time presenting evidence in the hearings by themselves.”
Resolving small claims disputes through mediations rather than court hearings eases the burden on judges as well as lay litigants, Westgate said.
“It takes the judges and the court commissioners a tremendous amount of time to work through those cases.”
Mediation also offers solutions to eviction cases that judges – whom the law allows only a binary choice between eviction and non-eviction – can’t.
“We, however, can fashion agreements that meet the needs of the parties,” Westgate said. “By the time they reach a hearing on the eviction, both probably want to get out of the property. It’s’ now [about] how do you give them enough time to do that and find another place?”
The freedom to fashion bespoke remedies, Westgate said, allows Wisconsin Judicare “to add another layer to the services that the courts can offer the parties.”
Westgate practiced law for several years before taking over the family business after his father died. He ran the business for 40 years but when he sold it, he didn’t feel like retiring.
Instead, he took a mediation course at the Winnebago Conflict Resolution Center in Oshkosh. When he returned home, Westgate said, “I approached the judges and said ‘Why don’t we have something like that in Marathon County?’ And Judge Huber said, ‘Well, be careful what you ask for because I’m appointing you to do that.’ That’s how it got started.”
Westgate works nearly full-time running the mediation service.
“I really believe in mediation as part of the court system and aiding the pro bono area of being able to offer litigants some type of dispute resolution mechanism that can help them navigate a difficult system.”
Wisconsin Judicare is able to offer cost-effective services because all its lawyers are volunteers. But the organization will need more volunteers as it expands it services across all of Wisconsin’s 33 northern counties – something made possible by the switch to conducing mediations via Zoom.
“This is just a great way to be able to reach people,” Westgate said. “People don’t have to travel 20, 30, 40 miles into the county seat to attend the mediation. So we feel we can cost-effectively reach those counties and provide another avenue for access to justice.”
Wisconsin Judicare will next offer its mediation training in November. Interested? Sign up to volunteer with Wisconsin Judicare.