Resolving the Case Out of Court

Before you file a lawsuit in court, you should always consider whether you can resolve your dispute out of court. More and more people are using other ways to solve their legal problems outside of court. These alternatives are called “alternative dispute resolution” or “ADR” for short.

Important: If you already have an agreement in your case and do not want to go to court, you can usually write up your agreement, have a judge sign it, and file it with the court. If you have an agreement in a family law case and want information to write it up, visit Agreements in Family Law Cases.

Using ADR to resolve your disputes without going to court can:

  • Save you time, since it can take a lot less time to work out and write up an agreement than go through a trial, which can take a year or more.

  • Save you money, since you can save money on attorney's fees, court costs and fees, fees for expert witnesses and other expenses. Also, because you finish your case sooner and do not have to go to court, you avoid having to take off from work.

  • Give you more control over the case and the outcome. In ADR, you participate more actively in creating a workable solution than if you go to court and leave the decision up to a judge or a jury. Also, you can create solutions that go beyond what the court can do but that address your situation and your dispute better.

Learn a lot more about the different types of ADR below, or click for ADR Resources.

In mediation, a neutral and impartial person called a "mediator" helps both sides communicate and try to reach a solution to their dispute that is acceptable to both of them. The mediator does not make any decisions about the dispute. He or she just helps both sides talk through the issues so they can settle the dispute themselves. Mediation leaves the control of the outcome to the parties in the case.

In arbitration, a neutral person called an "arbitrator" hears each side's position and arguments, looks at the evidence from each side, and makes a decision about the dispute. This decision is called an "award." Arbitration is less formal than a trial and the rules are more relaxed. Arbitration can be "binding" or "nonbinding." Binding arbitration means that both sides agree to accept the arbitrator's decision as final, whether they like it or not. It also means they waive their right to a trial. Nonbinding arbitration means that if either side is not satisfied with the arbitrator's decision, they can request a trial.

In neutral evaluation, a neutral person called an "evaluator" listens to summaries of the evidence and arguments of each party. The evaluator then gives his or her opinion of the strengths and weaknesses of each party's case and about how the dispute could be resolved. The evaluator is often an expert in the subject matter of the dispute. The evaluator's opinion is not binding but is often a good basis for trying to work out a settlement of the dispute.

In a settlement conference, the parties and their lawyers meet with a judge or a neutral person called "settlement officer" to discuss possible settlement of the dispute. The judge or settlement officer does not make a decision, but helps the parties evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of their cases and negotiate a settlement. Settlement conferences can be mandatory (the court requires the parties to do it) or voluntary (the parties choose to do it). Mandatory settlement conferences are often held close to the date a case is set for trial.

Find out which ADR options are best for your type of case and to get more detail on each option (including videos with information and resources).