A YEAR from now plaintiffs and defendants might be seeing eye to eye.
The introduction of mediation, which the European Union has said should be considered a political priority, should also help relieve the country's courts, which are burdened with a backlog of 500,000 cases and are facing fines for excessive time in adjudicating suits.
Although project financing has not yet been arranged, Justice Ministry spokesman Richard Fides told The Slovak Spectator on July 4 that the ministry did not expect difficulty in raising the funds, as the investment would pay off fast, thanks to money saved by relieving courts of much of their work.
Fides said that mediation was both voluntary and confidential, a process in which parties could participate either before taking their case to court, or simultaneously. Nothing said in mediation sittings can later be used as evidence.
The aim of mediation is to achieve a so-called 'win-win' result that is satisfactory for all involved. This end is helped by the fact that mediation is informal and faster that court proceedings.
Fides explained that a mediator is a neutral person trusted by both disputing parties and whose role was to lead the parties through the process. Unlike an arbiter, a mediator does not have the power to resolve or decide a conflict, only to give suggestions based upon his personal informal authority.
The European Commission in a paper last year stressed the importance of alternative dispute resolution for cross-border disputes, which "tend to result in even more lengthy proceedings and higher court costs".
The number of such disputes could increase after Slovakia's expected entry into the EU in 2004 as a result of increased trading between Slovakia and other EU member states.
Great Britain, which has a decade of experience with mediation, is helping Slovakia set up and introduce the project, and will provide financial, material and technical aid. A preparation phase ended in April, and the plan is now ready to be put into Slovak legal practice through a Mediation Law, which is being drafted at the Justice Ministry.
According to Eva Rupcová, head of the ministry's international relations and human rights department, an effective mediator needs around 180 hours of training, and should have a suitable personality and experience for the job. Legal education is not required.
That last fact, however, according to legal experts may create resistance to the introduction of mediation from those who do have legal training and who profit from the current situation.
Ján Hrubala, a former judge-turned-attorney and a long-time mediation activist, fears that "some groups may view it as a threat, because many people will be able to resolve their disputes without lawyers."
Rupcová agreed that alternative dispute resolution increased supply on the justice market, causing some attorneys to fear losing work.
But Darina Michalková, vice-president of the Slovak Bar Association, said that attorneys were unlikely to be opposed to the project, as they have "always attempted to reach out-of-court settlements".
She said that if she was sceptical of mediation's chances, it was both because "Slovaks don't like to compromise" and because "many now benefit from lengthy court procedures."
Hrubala agreed. "For some debtors the status quo is advantageous, because although they know they will eventually have to pay off their debts, until the courts issue a verdict they can use the money they owe in other ways."
The concept of mediation is not completely new to the Slovak legal system, having been introduced in labour law by the Collective Bargaining Act in the mid 1990s.
But Rupcová said the tool had not been frequently used, adding that gaining public confidence in mediation would be key to ensuring its success as a dispute mechanism.