Starting today, citizens with small claims disputes heading to D.C. Superior Court primed to file a lawsuit may never have to see a lawyer, a judge or the inside of a courtroom.
Instead, trained mediators will be on hand outside Small Claims Court to help them resolve their disputes, free of charge, as part of an innovative program to offer alternatives to traditional litigation -- a program whose boosters include the American Bar Association and Chief Justice Warren E. Burger.
"All of us here share . . . a belief that a lawsuit in a courtroom is not the only way to resolve a dispute or a disagreement," Burger told an audience of judges, lawyers and mediators at ceremonies yesterday to launch the program, the first of its kind in the nation. "A great many lawyers have forgotten that."
Burger, in a 1982 address to the ABA, asserted that the nation's overburdened judicial system should begin looking to arbitration and mediation to settle some disputes, and he chastised judges and lawyers for resisting these out-of-court techniques. Yesterday, he commended the D.C. court, the local bar and the ABA for pursuing these "better, cheaper" alternatives.
The D.C. program, with mediators in the courthouse and an "intake center" to analyze problems and channel people to other dispute resolution centers, is a first, according to ABA and court officials. But it is part of a growing nationwide movement that believes the adversarial courtroom is not the best place for many disputes involving landlords and tenants, aggrieved consumers, bickering neighbors and spouses fighting over a myriad of domestic problems.
According to program director Linda Finkelstein, citizens who already have filed small claims suits, which are disputes involving $2,000 or less, will come to court on the day of trial, but will have an opportunity to mediate the dispute, free of charge, instead of going to trial.
More than 25,000 cases were filed in Small Claims Court last year and the backlog there swelled by 48 percent, according to figures released in March.
Program officials said mediation may help the overburdened system, but court Executive Officer Larry Polansky was not so sure. He said the publicity may bring more people into the courthouse. "Still, if it alerts the community to the ability to get their needs addressed, that's good," Polansky said.
Mediators in the program have been specially trained and include housewives, a sprinking of lawyers, retired school teachers and one retired member of the Federal Trade Commission.
A mediator will take both parties into a room, where the people themselves will work out the terms of the agreement, according to Finkelstein, and they must agree on every term. Lawyers aren't necessary and neither is a knowledge of rules or procedures, she said. "No one can lose on a technicality," a program brochure asserts.
Because everyone must agree, people are often more satisfied with the results than with a court-imposed ruling. "The statistics are great," said Larry Ray, of the ABA's Special Committee on Dispute Resolution. According to several studies, there is about a 90 percent chance people who go into mediation will leave with an agreement, he said, and an 85 percent chance they will live up to it.
The courthouse also has an "intake center" where people walk in and trained specialists analyze their dispute using a 3-inch-thick manual to channel them to alternative dispute resolution programs outside the courthouse. Finkelstein said there are hundreds of existing programs people don't know about.
The ABA has financed the program with nearly $250,000 and is supporting similar projects in Tulsa and Houston, according to Ray. Although each is slightly different, all are part of a concept, called the "multidoor" courthouse to open "new doors" for citizens in the courthouse.