Mediation Helps Avoid Costs of Trial

Some people call it alternative dispute resolution, or ADR for short.

I prefer to think of it as staying out of court and away from a lawyer's cross-examination.

There is a growing trend within the legal profession to encourage citizens to explore alternative ways to resolve disputes outside of court.

Mediation and arbitration are two of the methods used to avoid long, technical, expensive trials. There is a significant difference between the two, as Joel Edelman, a Santa Monica lawyer-mediator, explains.

The Third Party

Arbitration involves a "judging" process, just like a trial. A neutral, detached observer, the arbitrator, will listen to all the facts and make a decision. The rules of evidence may be informal, but the final decision is left to a third party.

In mediation, there is also a third person present, but he does not make a decision. It is his job to help the parties in the dispute reach their own decision. The mediator "does not tell them who ought to win or lose, but facilitates their coming to agreement," Edelman says.

Mediation is "not concerned with finding liability or determining who is right or wrong," explains a publication of the Neighborhood Justice Center, a Santa Monica mediation clinic sponsored by the Los Angeles County Bar Assn. A mediator "helps them arrive at a resolution through . . . clarification, communication, acknowledgment, suggestion and negotiation."

Mediation can work as an alternative to the judicial process for all sorts of people who are angry at each other, especially those who have continuing interpersonal or economic relationships, such as landlords and tenants, couples about to divorce, merchants and their customers or employers and employees.

For mediation to work well, the people involved must want to resolve their differences and come to a fair agreement. If one or the other party isn't interested in settling their differences, mediation may not be an appropriate alternative.

"This is for adults," Edelman says, as he explains that individuals who are willing to take personal responsibility for their actions, who trust themselves to make decisions and who are committed to working out a mutually satisfactory agreement are the best candidates for mediation.

If the dispute is based strictly on an interpretation of law, a court is probably best suited to decide. If the dispute is solely a question of fact, a judge or arbitrator may be necessary. Or if the dispute is really an emotional conflict, counseling may be your best bet. But if the dispute is a combination of all three of these issues--law, facts and emotions--then mediation may be effective, Edelman notes.

Divorces and related issues, such as child custody and support payments, are often effectively resolved by mediation at a lower cost than a full divorce trial. Disputes between neighbors are also good candidates for mediation.

Edelman is one of the few practicing Los Angeles lawyers who devotes his full time to mediation. He charges $200 to $300 for the initial consultation and an hourly fee for the mediation itself. That may sound expensive, but compare it to the cost of litigation and it starts to sound reasonable, especially because mediation is less time consuming than going to court.

Number of Centers

In addition, there is a growing number of alternative resolution centers, such as the Neighborhood Justice Center, that use volunteer mediators and charge little or no fees. Beginning this month, the center will charge a maximum of $75 per hour for divorce and business disputes, depending upon the income level of the participants. A nominal processing fee is required for other civil disputes.

If you are interested in becoming a mediator, the Neighborhood Justice Center also offers a training program. To find out more about it, or to see if your dispute can be handled by the center, call (213) 451-8192, Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Services are available in Spanish on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

Obviously, mediation isn't for everyone. But if you and your foe really want to settle a dispute and you would prefer to do it quickly, be directly involved in the process and stay out of court, a mediator may be able to help.

Attorney Jeffrey S. Klein, The Times' senior staff counsel, cannot answer mail personally but will respond in this column to questions of general interest about the law. Do not telephone. Write to Jeffrey S. Klein, Legal View, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.

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