Dispute Center Accepts Liberty Bell

    GRAND RAPIDS — For the first time, the Grand Rapids Bar Association (GRBA) has conferred its Law Day Liberty Bell Award upon an institution.

    The (GRBA) this year rang the bell for the Kent County Dispute Resolution Center — an entity that has helped thousands of local people settle disputes without the animus, anguish and expense of litigation.

    The GRBA presented the honor during its annual Law Day celebration.

    The award honors either a non-lawyer individual or a nonprofit organization that has made an outstanding contribution to the cause of justice or the advancement of public understanding of the Constitution and the legal system.

    Judges for the award base their decision on promoting a better understanding of the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

    The award also honors those who:

    • Encourage greater respect for the law and the courts.
    • Stimulate a deeper sense of personal responsibility so that citizens recognize their duties as well as their rights.
    • Contribute to the effective functioning of institutions of government.
    • Foster a better understanding and appreciation of the rule of law.

    As the local winner, the Dispute Resolution Center will receive the GRBA’s nomination for the State Bar of Michigan’s Liberty Bell Award, to be presented at the annual meeting of the state bar here in September.

    Also up for nomination for the state award is Wayne Bentley, a middle school government teacher, who was the GRBA’s Liberty Bell winner from 2000.

    “Both candidates are worthy of the state award,” said Dale Ann Iverson, chair of the GRBA standing committee.

    “Wayne’s nomination is very appropriate this year for what the state bar is looking for, and so we have decided to also nominate him.”

    The Dispute Resolution Center’s award also comes at an ideal time, she said, noting that the American Bar Association is celebrating the 10th anniversary of its Section of Dispute Resolution, and the GRBA is celebrating the first anniversary of its Alternative Dispute Resolution section.

    Iverson said it is fitting to honor the center as a pioneer of dispute resolution in the community as well as the state.

    The center, started by judges Louis Simhouser and John T. Letts in 1986, began as a group of volunteers operating with donations from area churches and local foundations in facilities donated by St. Adelbert’s church. The donations spring in part from the Scriptural urging that Christians refrain from litigation against each other.

    Volunteers were trained as what are termed facilitative mediators who began meeting with disputants and solving problems that otherwise might have gone to court.

    Most matters with which the center dealt initially were of a minor small claims nature.

    Over time the center said it discovered that resolutions reached through a facilitative process were more lasting and satisfying to participants than judgments that resulted from litigation.

    Too, the center found that participants began to understand the constraints that the courts face when addressing intangible concerns.

    In 1988, based on the center’s success, legislation was passed establishing a network of community mediation centers throughout the rest of the state.

    These centers were placed under the supervision of the State Court Administration office and designed to serve as a complement to the Michigan Court System.

    As centers were established in Michigan’s counties and more citizens trained as mediators, the use of facilitative mediation was expanded, a movement in which the Grand Rapids center played a leading role.

    The local center has helped mediate more than 7,000 cases in the past 16 years, while helping several thousand more people to reach agreement through other dispute resolution processes.

    Currently the center has more than 45 mediators qualified to mediate at least 15 types of disputes and all serve as center volunteers. With few exceptions these services are provided free of charge.

    The GRBA reports that it has been bestowing the Liberty Bell award for 40 years.

    In 1999 Glenn Barkan of Aquinas College was awarded the Liberty Bell. Susan Heartwell of the Children’s Assessment Center was honored with the award in 2001, and Dirk Koning of the Community Media Center took home the award last year.

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