DC Alternatives to Small Claims Court

Suing someone in court isn't the only way to solve a legal problem. There are alternative ways to solve your problems outside of court. These alternatives are called alternative dispute resolution or ADR for short.

ADR is a process in which a neutral person helps people resolve their case. ADR is designed to provide an opportunity to settle all or part of the case early on and keep the costs to a minimum.

There are many different kinds of ADR. But all of them use a neutral person to decide a case or help both sides come to an agreement without a trial. ADR is usually less formal, less expensive and less time-consuming than a trial.

Before filing a small claims case, you should try to resolve your dispute with the other party. Free or low-cost services may be available through the court or local legal clinics. For more information, contact your local court.

Types of ADR

The most common types of ADR for civil cases are mediation, settlement conferences, neutral evaluation and arbitration. In some programs, ADR providers determine their own fee for their services.


Some counties require mediation prior to a hearing before the judge. This allows the parties to try to settle the case without a hearing. Even if the parties agree to settle out of court, the plaintiff may ask the defendant to pay the court costs.

In mediation, an impartial person called a "mediator" helps the parties reach a resolution to their dispute. Mediation leaves control of the outcome of a case to the parties. The mediator doesn't decide the dispute but helps the parties communicate so they can try to settle the dispute themselves.

Mediation requires enough time for the two parties to be able to explain, in an uninterrupted fashion, their own perceptions of the current disputed issues and their ideas about how to keep the problem solved in the future. The amount of time necessary to accomplish this varies, depending on what issues are being mediated.


In arbitration, a neutral person called an "arbitrator" does decide the outcome of a case. The arbitrator hears arguments and evidence from each side before making a decision. Arbitration is less formal than a trial.

Arbitration may be either binding or nonbinding. The plaintiff and defendant agree to be bound by the arbitrator's decision and give up their right to a trial in binding arbitration. Generally, the parties may not appeal an arbitrator's decision in binding arbitration. Nonbinding arbitration means that the parties are free to request a trial if they don't agree with the arbitrator's decision.

Neutral Evaluation

In neutral evaluation, each party gets a chance to present the case to a neutral person called the "evaluator." The evaluator then gives an opinion on the strengths and weaknesses of each party's evidence and arguments and about how the dispute could be resolved. The evaluator is often an expert in the subject matter of the dispute. Although the evaluator's opinion is not binding, the parties typically use it as a basis for trying to negotiate a resolution of the dispute.

Settlement Conference

Settlement conferences may be either mandatory or voluntary. In both types of settlement conferences, the parties and their attorneys meet with a judge or a neutral person called a "settlement officer" to discuss possible settlement of their dispute. The judge or settlement officer doesn't make a decision in the case but assists the parties in evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the case and in negotiating a settlement. Settlement conferences are appropriate in any case where settlement is an option.

Benefits of ADR

Some potential benefits of ADR are to:

  • Save time
  • Save money
  • Increase control over the process and the outcome
  • Preserve relationships
  • Increase satisfaction
  • Improve attorney-client relationships

Multi-Door Dispute Resolution Division

The Superior Court of the District of Columbia has a Multi-Door Dispute Resolution Division that helps parties settle disputes through mediation and other types of ADR, including arbitration, case evaluation and conciliation. The name "Multi-Door" comes from the multi-door courthouse concept, which envisions one courthouse with multiple dispute resolution doors or programs. Cases are referred through the appropriate door for resolution.

The goals of a multi-door approach are to provide citizens with easy access to justice, reduce delay and provide links to related services, making more options available through which disputes can be resolved. The Multi-Door Dispute Resolution Division assists parties to reach agreements that meet their interests, preserve relationships and save time and money.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • What should I do if the defendant has not paid me after we reached an agreement?
  • Are there attorneys that specialize in helping resolve small claims without going to court?
  • Can an attorney assist me during mediation?
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