CONSUMERS : Mediation: A New Way to Avoid Court

If you've ever been involved in a lawsuit, on one side or the other, there was probably a time when you said to yourself--"There's got to be a better way."

Whether your legal fight is about a late rent payment to your landlord, a dispute with the local cleaners who ruined your expensive tuxedo, or an auto dealer who doesn't agree with your interpretation of a car warranty, spending money on lawyers and wasting time in court hearings can be frustrating. To all sides.

If the emotional and financial costs of the battle are wearing thin, it's probably time you considered mediation, or alternative dispute resolution, as an option.

Mediation is not for all kinds of legal disputes. It works best when the financial stakes are not excessive and when the parties know each other or have some reason, such as a continuing economic relationship, to want to work out a solution. Landlords and tenants, consumers and merchants, neighbors, family members (trying to work out a divorce settlement) and small employers and their employees are groups that may find mediation a good alternative to court.

Even some large corporations are experimenting with mediation as a way to reduce the extremely high legal expenses associated with complex or highly charged litigation. Mediators do not reach a decision on their own and then tell the combatants what they have decided. Mediation is a process in which the parties to the dispute participate in reaching a decision through consensus. It is not based on legal precedents, except to the extent a mediator may discuss how a court might resolve an issue, but it is based on common sense, good judgment and compromise.

Mediation is usually less expensive than the judicial process and can be used before or even during the middle of a lawsuit, if all sides agree.

Dispute Resolution Services Inc., a nonprofit corporation sponsored by the Los Angeles County Bar Assn., sponsors numerous mediation programs. Its community mediation programs, open to the public, operate in several Southern California offices to serve the following locations: Santa Monica/West Los Angeles, Pasadena/San Gabriel Valley, Compton, South Bay, and the West Hollywood/Beverly Hills/Fairfax area. For more information, call (213) 450-5252.

The community mediation programs have been very successful, says Lauren Burton, the DRS executive director. Sixty percent of those who contact DRS about mediation use the services, and of those, 84% have their disputes resolved. More than 95% of those interviewed 30 days after the mediation said they were very satisfied with the agreement reached during the process and could perform their part of the bargain with little or no difficulty, according to Burton.

DRS also sponsors mediation and settlement programs for people who are currently embroiled in a Superior Court lawsuit in the Los Angeles Central District, in any Municipal Court action in Santa Monica, or in an eviction case in the Los Angeles Municipal Court. For more information about these court programs, call (213) 974-8913.

If you live in Los Angeles County and have a dispute with your attorney about fees or any other matter, you can have that dispute mediated by the Attorney/Client Relations and Fee Arbitration program administered by DRS. Telephone (213) 627-2727.

In Orange County, the Dispute Resolution Center is located at 146 N. Grand St., Orange. The telephone number is (714) 633-4956.

Klein cannot answer mail personally but will respond in this column to questions of general interest about the law. Write to Jeffrey S. Klein, Legal VIEW, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.

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