STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Alaska is trying to limit the pain of divorce. A program called Early Resolution aims to help couples settle their cases quickly and amicably. Alaska Public Radio Network's Annie Feidt attended an Early Resolution session.
ANNIE FEIDT, BYLINE: This is a serious story about the legal system and divorce. And one thing you do not expect to hear during an afternoon in court is laughter.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: So I just started recording, if that's okay.
JACOB CARPENTER: Yeah.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: And what's your name?
CARPENTER: Jacob Carpenter.
FEIDT: Jacob and Thea Carpenter just finished negotiating a divorce. They were married for 10 years and have two kids, so it was complicated. But the advice they got from the Early Resolution Project helped.
THEA CARPENTER: Jacob and I get along pretty well. We've been able to communicate.
CARPENTER: We either agreed on everything or didn't hold on too strong to the stuff that we wanted.
FEIDT: That's the type of cooperation Superior Court Judge Stephanie Joannides imagined three years ago when she helped set up the Early Resolution Project. Divorce and child custody cases were crowding her schedule. And each one took too long to resolve. Judge Joannides says months would go by before a couple had their initial court date and at that point they tended to be entrenched in their positions.
JUDGE STEPHANIE JOANNIDES: So all these people are doubly in conflict by then. And I thought what if we could set these cases early and I could try to resolve them early?
FEIDT: Now, every two weeks, Anchorage Superior Court devotes a Friday afternoon to Early Resolution.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Please rise. Superior court for the state of Alaska is now in session. The Honorable Judge Joannides presiding.
JOANNIDES: Please be seated.
FEIDT: As court proceedings go, it's remarkably informal. While the judge begins the first few cases, couples scheduled later in the day meet with lawyers in a jury room down the hall. Stacey Marz runs the Early Resolution Project. She says the program encourages settlement.
STACEY MARZ: So it's addressing how do we get people without attorneys legal advice and how do we do it in real time in a court proceeding. So that's what's unique.
FEIDT: The pro bono lawyers like the program because it gives them a chance to help needy clients without getting involved in lengthy cases. But for the Early Resolution staff, the work begins well before the parties arrive in court. Marz says they scan the initial divorce and custody court filings.
MARZ: If there's any clues in the file from the paperwork that has been filed, that they have some agreements or they look like they could reach agreements, we're going to try to give them an opportunity to be part of the project.
FEIDT: Eighty percent of the Early Resolution cases wrap up in short order, most in just one hearing. Judge Joannides says that used to be rare.
JOANNIDES: Many judges are fixers. We want to help people. We want to help them resolve their dispute, and if we can do that quickly, it's incredibly satisfying.
FEIDT: Two other cities in Alaska are replicating Early Resolution. And the program has piqued the interest of court systems and bar associations around the country. For Thea and Jacob Carpenter, getting their case resolved quickly, with free lawyers at their side, helped them make the best of a bad situation.
CARPENTER: It made it a lot less stressful.
CARPENTER: And for us, I mean it probably was the difference between ruining two people financially maybe. I mean I don't know if that's an appropriate way to say it...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CARPENTER: You know, and a few(ph) people can walk away kind of just better.
FEIDT: According to their volunteer lawyers, Jacob and Thea are good divorcers. And even though they couldn't preserve their marriage, the Early Resolution Project did help them preserve a workable relationship, especially for their kids' sake.
For NPR news, I'm Annie Feidt in Anchorage.
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