MISSOULA — A bill approved by the Montana Legislature gives victims of domestic violence – both physical and emotional – the power to choose whether they want mediation in family law cases.
“I’m thrilled. It’s a victory for women and children in Montana,” said Chris Herb, whose niece, Heidi Hendershott of Lost Prairie, was the subject of a 2011 Montana Supreme Court ruling that spurred the bill.
Hendershott herself said Monday that she was glad the bill’s backers “were able to put my history to such good use. It’s definitely been very humbling and powerful at the same time.”
In the Hendershott case, the Supreme Court ruled that courts couldn’t force domestic violence victims into mediation. And, it included suspected emotional abuse along with physical and sexual abuse in cases that would demand “an absolute bar to mediation.”
House Bill 555, approved 43-3 Saturday in the House of Representatives, addressed that “absolute bar.”
“We thought that the absolute bar disempowers survivors and basically substitutes the state’s prerogatives for women’s choice,” University of Montana associate law professor Eduardo Capulong, who with four students in the law school’s mediation clinic wrote HB 555.
The bar “revictimizes survivors by robbing them of control over their lives – in particular, the way in which they choose to resolve disputes with their abusers,” according to a list of talking points on the bill.
The bill, introduced by Rep. Ellie Hill, D-Missoula, was backed by a coalition including domestic violence and mediation groups, as well as judges, Capulong said. Although the bill originally failed to make it out of the Senate Judiciary Committee, a second attempt won unanimous support among committee members.
“I really credit (the victory) to a broad coalition of people interested in the issue,” said Linda Gryczan, president of the Montana Mediation Association.
When people do opt for mediation, the new law requires in certain cases that a mediator be trained in domestic violence.
“That means we really need to make sure there’s a pool of mediators trained in working with domestic violence for people who choose this option so they can do it fairly and on an even playing field,” Gryczan said. “It’s very important that we let the public know there’s different types of mediation so they can choose what’s right for them.”
As many as a quarter of filings in district court are family law cases, with 50 percent to 80 percent of those involving allegations of domestic violence, Capulong said.
Without the option for mediation, “we’re talking a lot of cases, 10,000-plus, that would go back into the court system,” he said.
The bill now awaits action by Gov. Steve Bullock.