Suing someone in court isn't the only way to solve a legal problem. There are alternative ways to solve your legal 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 a case early on and keep the costs to a minimum.
There are different kinds of ADR. 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.
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 fees for their services.
Mediation is a final opportunity given to parties in conflict to resolve their differences without having a judge decide the outcome. 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.
Once parties choose mediation, they go with the mediator to a private room in the courthouse to begin the process. Parties are asked to sign a consent to mediate form. When the mediation session is over, an agreement is written, signed and presented to the judge.
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.
If you aren't able to resolve your case in mediation, the judge will still hear your case on the date it was set.
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. In binding arbitration, the plaintiff and the defendant agree to be bound by the arbitrator's decision and give up their rights to a trial. 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 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 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 case. 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.
If you do settle, you must contact the court and fill out and file a dismissal form to end your case, and if you settle after the defendant has filed an answer (responded) to your complaint, you both must sign the dismissal form. However, make sure to collect the settlement before dismissing, or get a signed and witnessed document specifying the terms of the settlement.
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
If you decide that ADR, rather than small claims court, may be the better way to resolve your dispute, ask the clerk if the small claims court offers any programs. If not, the clerk may know of a publicly funded program in your county.
Questions for Your Attorney
- What should I do if the defendant hasn't paid me after we reached an agreement?
- Are there attorneys that concentrate in helping resolve small claims without going to court?
- Can I seek out and have a mediator help settle my case even though court-ordered mediation isn't available in my area?