The Special Masters Program
By: Laura Ginsberg
After two years in operation, the 25th Judicial Circuit's Special Masters Program has proven successful in helping parties and attorneys settle disputed family law cases.
The Special Masters Program provides an avenue in which parties and attorneys can present the contested issues of a family law case to an impartial third party, known as a special master. Eight attorneys have been reelected to serve another two-year term as special masters. They are: from Phelps County, Mark Calvert, Carolyn Buschjost, Kent Robinson, John Beger and Emily Woodward; from Maries County, Dawn Clayton and Al Crump; and from Texas County, Katie Anderson. The special masters were chosen by a vote of attorneys within the 25th Judicial Circuit.
"I'm very pleased to be participating for another two years." said Dawn Clayton, who practices law as a guardian ad litem for the 25th Circuit. "I think the Special Masters Program is an important and successful part of the circuit's family court program."
The Special Masters Program is the first of its kind in the state of Missouri, and was instituted as part of the 25th Judicial Circuit's unified family court program. The goal of the program is to help parties achieve faster, more satisfying solutions to family law cases.
During special masters sessions, which are confidential and held once a month throughout the year, parties and their attorneys have the opportunity to present their case to a team of one male and one female special master. The sessions are less formal than a court hearing, giving parties the opportunity to speak freely, and the special masters a chance to ask questions. At the conclusion of the session, the special masters make recommendations to the parties based on their knowledge and expertise in the area of family law.
The opinions of the special masters provide parties with a more realistic picture of what is likely to happen if their case is taken to trial and decided by a judge.
"People can have unrealistic expectations of what a full-blown trial is going to achieve for them," Clayton said. "I think part of the special masters process is education. Special Masters give the parties an unbiased opinion as to what is likely to happen at trial."
If the parties can negotiate a settlement without going to trial, it leaves the outcome of the case in their hands, which often results in a more satisfying solution for those involved. Avoiding trial also saves the family from going through what can be a long, emotionally taxing and expensive process.
"A trial is long, expensive and undeniably divisive,"said Kent Robinson, attorney at the Rolla firm Williams, Robinson, Rigler & Buschjost, P.C.. "Anytime clients are able to sit down at a table and resolve disputes through a negotiation process, there is a greater likelihood that they will reach an agreement that stands the test of time."
Currently, more than 80 percent of cases going before the special masters are resulting in parties settling without going to trial.
"Often, people just want to have their say," said John Beger, attorney with the Rolla firm Beger & Bushie. "With the Special Masters Program, parties can do that in an informal setting with much less expense, and a resolution can be reached that's acceptable to everybody with much less emotional turmoil."