As dockets for small claims court, which hear cases under $2,000-$5,000, depending on the state, continue to increase at a high rate, most courts have instituted policies that encourage, and in some cases mandate, a mediated resolution of disputes wherever possible. Small claims mediation, when successful, allows courts to resolve disputes without costly and time-consuming litigation clogging up court dockets. For plaintiffs and defendants, it has the advantage of saving time and money and the ability to come to a mutually agreed upon result, rather than having a court impose a resolution.
Small claims mediation is especially useful when your dispute is with a friend, neighbor, customer, partner, or anyone else with whom you want to keep good ongoing relations. Because small claims mediation is a low-cost or free mechanism, it's a good method of resolving disputes in a more amicable manner.
Mediation is a party-driven conflict resolution process aimed at reaching a mutually agreeable solution to a dispute. The process is typically voluntary (though courts do mandate the process under certain circumstances) and the parties communicate directly to each other, with a mediator serving as a sort of referee, making sure that the parties stay on course toward achieving a resolution. The result must be mutually agreed upon by the parties to be final.
Mediation is often desirable because the parties control the outcome. During mediation, underlying issues between the parties may be brought to the forefront in order to resolve the dispute at issue. For example, in a dispute over ownership of an antique car between business partners, the car may not be the real issue driving the dispute. Perhaps one partner is still upset about a perceived slight he feels his business partner gave him at a business function. Perhaps all it takes is an apology for the car dispute to disappear. An experienced mediator will draw this information out and the parties will be better able to reach a settlement.
Once a small claim has been filed in court and served to the other party, the court may mandate or strongly recommend mediation, or one of the parties may request mediation. A party can request small claims mediation through the administrative system where the claim was filed or the small claims mediation service, if the court has one.
Court-ordered mediation is free of charge, and typically party-requested mediation is also free to the parties. Court mediators may work for free or be paid by the court system. Mediators may be attorneys, though they are more likely persons who have been trained to be mediators for small claims mediation.
There's no need to be nervous--you won't be in a courtroom with a judge. It will be you, the other party, and the mediator, and possibly their assistant or trainee, in an office room discussing the issues. Be further assured that the mediator has no legal authority over you. The mediator can't order you to do anything, or to even speak if you don't want to (though it's always more useful to the process for you to be forthcoming).
The mediation is a much more relaxed atmosphere where the parties can be open about their frustrations, disappointment, and other emotions, whereas in court you are limited to the facts and legal arguments. A typical mediation lasts anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours.
Mediation is most successful for those parties who wish to maintain relationships with each other after the case is resolved. Taking part in an acrimonious case before a judge often damages relationships beyond repair, so these parties typically get the most out of the process because they can share their frustrations and have a discussion about a range of issues that would not be allowed in court.
Even for those who don't have a close relationship, however, mediation can be well worth the several hours. First, a successful mediation eliminates the chance that you will lose your case. Second, you can maintain control of the process during mediation, but once you're in court the ball is in the judge's hands. Third, it's an immediate resolution and the other party is more likely to pay if they agree with the decision. When a party loses in court, they tend to drag their feet about paying or abiding by the decision out of anger.
Mediators can help explain mediation process and potential benefits of resolving a case outside of small claims court. If you believe that the other party will be reluctant to accept your offer for mediation, consider informing the court administrator or small claims mediation department, and they can reach out to that party and answer any questions about the process.
Particularly when it's the other party that requests mediation, it's a good idea to invest 30 minutes to at least listen to what they have to say. The fact that they want to mediate the dispute signals that they are willing to compromise, and because of the factors just discussed, it's worth going into a mediation with an open mind.
Mediation certainly doesn't work for everyone and it may not be for you. If all you want is 100% of what you're asking for and not a penny less for any reason, or you just want to the other party to suffer through a case before a judge, mediation is probably a waste of time. Carefully consider your goals in taking the case to small claims before accepting a request to mediate.