The Bar Association of Montgomery County yesterday began the Washington area's first voluntary arbitration service for legal disputes, allowing residents to avoid some costly and lengthy court trials while helping cut the court's backlog.

Any cases involving monetary damages now can be heard by an arbitrator selected by both parties in a dispute, according to Durke Thompson, the bar's arbitration committee chairman. Any resident of Virginia, Maryland or the District can participate, he said.

The arbitration decisions are as binding as any other legal judgement, but rarely can be appealed, Thompson said.

If agreed to in advance, arbitration decisions can be advisory and help the parties decide whether they want to file a lawsuit or submit to binding arbitration, Thompson said.

Arbitration can eliminate the need for lawyers, expert witnesses and extensive evidence, Thompson said. For a $15 fee and $60 an hour for the arbitrator, an attorney with five years experience, a local resident can have his or her case heard in an informal setting within 60 to 90 days rather than after a year or more, which is the usual time for most cases filed today, Thompson said.

Arbitration currently is limited to cases involving money, but Thompson siad the bar eventually may expand the service to include domestic disputes.

Arbitraion may take some cases that normally would go to small claims court, which handles civil disputes of no more that $500. But Thompson said, "We're not competing with small claims court, We expect larger cases."

An arbitration decision can be appealed only if the arbitrator rules in an area that the parties hadn't asked him to decide on, Thompson said.