CHIEF JUSTICE Burger recently gave a boost to a growing movement dedicated to resolving disputes outside the formal, traditional--and expensive -- legal process. "Why do we need judges initially," he asked at the annual meeting of the Institute of Judicial Administration, "to resolve child custody cases and related domestic disputes?" Or in divorce cases or to preside over the affairs of minors or persons judged mentally incompetent? The chief justice even suggested that some personal injury and property damage cases might be moved to administrative resolution and kept from the cluttered courts altogether, in the same manner that worker compensation cases are settled today.

The chief justice speaks for the judiciary and its special concerns for overcrowded courts and overloaded dockets. The number of filings in federal district courts in the last 40 years has increased seven times faster than the population, federal appeals cases at a rate 10 times that of the population. But there is a great deal to be gained by the public, too, in promoting speedy and less costly dispute resolution. Thanks to a group of volunteer mediators, much is already being done here in the District of Columbia.

Under the auspices of the Center for Community Justice, a citizens' complaint center and mediation service has been established at Superior Court, where 100 trained community volunteers offer their services to help settle certain kinds of disputes outside courts. Mediation is a voluntary procedure in which a neutral third party tries to help the parties to a dispute come to a mutually satisfactory solution. No one has the power to impose terms, but agreements lead to contracts between the parties, which become legally binding. Mediation is especially useful in certain kinds of cases -- family disputes, landlord-tenant cases and small claims -- but generally not as effective when one party to the dispute has considerably more power than the other -- an employer-employee problem, for example, or a case in which one party fears physical violence by the other.

In the last two years, this mediation service has settled more than 1,300 disputes that would otherwise have gone to court. The mediators are not all lawyers themselves. Housewives, retirees, social workers and interested citizens from all walks of life have volunteered for the 50-hour training program and agreed to contribute their services for a full year to this project. There has also been an increase in the volume of work done by private mediators on a fee basis in more complicated cases. These also relieve the courts of much detailed, time-consuming and often emotion-laden work that doesn't necessarily require a judge's time. Mediation seems like such a simple and natural approach to dispute resolution that it's use is bound to grow.