D.C. Superior Court has opened a new dispute resolution center in the first step toward what judges hope will be a broad program for helping city residents resolve problems short of filing lawsuits.
The pilot "multidoor courthouse" program, which opened in the courthouse recently, will handle complaints about everything from bad car repairs to a neighbor's barking dog and will give advice about which government agency or private organization can help resolve the problem.
"They're not a mere clearinghouse," said Larry Ray, director of the American Bar Association's committee on dispute resolution, which is funding the new center. "They're more like researchers. If 10 people walk in the door with a complaint, three will walk out feeling they have more information than when they walked in."
Linda Finkelstein, director of the project, added, "The court has an interest in part in helping people find the best way to get a dispute resolved. There are increasing numbers of cases coming into this court, and it's hoped that people will find other ways of solving them."
Alternatives to court litigation have gained momentum in recent years as judges all the way to the Supreme Court have complained that the courts are becoming clogged with increasing numbers of lawsuits.
In 1971, there were three mediation programs in the nation, compared to more than 300 today, Ray said.
"Probably in almost every major city, every part of the legal system appears to be overcrowded," he said. "There's a general feeling that there are some cases that are not suited for the adversarial style of the courtroom."
According to Ray, people often can solve their problems faster, and get a more satsifying result, using alternatives to court.
The ABA is providing about $1 million, he said, to fund the dispute resolution program for 18 months in the District, Tulsa and Houston.
In Tulsa, where the dispute resolution program started a year ago, staff members also were placed outside the courthouse in a local police station, the prosecutor's office, the Better Business Bureau and a television station.
Three years ago, the court in the District opened a voluntary arbitration program as an alternative to taking serious civil cases to trial. The public has not exactly jumped at the chance: Only 25 cases have been referred for arbitration, said Thomas Hammond, chief of the court's civil branch.
Under arbitration, litigants air their cases in private and must accept the findings of a professional arbitrator, who acts much like a judge. Mediation, which will be offered only for small claims, is different because the opposing parties work out their own solution, with help from the mediator.
Ray said that people who mediate their disputes instead of filing suit are more likely to be pleased with the outcome and more likely to live up to whatever they agree on.
"I think it's a wonderful opportunity," said D.C. Bar President Marna Tucker. "It really puts us as a leader in the country in alternatives to the expenses and long process of litigation."