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 a chance 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.
In mediation, a trained neutral 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.
Mediators won't make decisions for you, provide any legal advice or recommend the terms of an agreement. Mediation can help you protect your privacy. Unlike courtroom proceedings, which are open to the public, mediation is a confidential process.
Mediation is voluntary. All parties involved in the dispute must agree to mediation. If you and your opponent attempt mediation but can't reach an agreement, you still have the right to proceed to court.
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.
In neutral evaluation, each party gets a chance to present their 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.
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 does not make a decision in the case but assists the parties in evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the case and in negotiating a settlement.
Benefits of ADR
Some potential benefits of ADR are:
- Save time
- Save money
- Increase control over the process and the outcome
- Preserve relationships
- Increase satisfaction
- Improve attorney-client relationships
District Court's Alternative Dispute Resolution Program
The Maryland district court's ADR program coordinators screen cases that come before the court and identify those cases that may benefit from mediation. Parties involved in these disputes may be offered the opportunity to mediate prior to the day of trial. Some courts may offer mediation on the day of trial. Participation in the mediation program is voluntary.
The district court works with mediation programs throughout the state to provide an alternative to court litigation. One such program is the Community Mediation Maryland (CMM). You may request mediation by contacting CMM, who will help you decide if mediation is appropriate. CMM will refer you to a local program who will contact all parties involved to discuss the mediation and make necessary arrangements. For additional information visit the CMM Web site.
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?