Civil mediation is a form of alternative dispute resolution. Parties to a dispute agree to allow a neutral third party to assist them in the negotiation of a settlement. The parties have no obligation to choose mediation instead of litigating their claims in court. If they do choose to mediate and sign a settlement agreement, it is as binding and enforceable as any contract.
Mediation encourages the parties to work to negotiate their own settlement with the help of a mediator whose primary role it is to open and encourage dialogue. The option to use civil mediation can be part of the court process when a lawsuit is filed or can be initiated by the parties, independent of a court action. For instance, parties to a case in small claims court often have the option of using mediation to settle the dispute instead of waiting for the judge to hear the case. This selection can be made after the complaint is filed and during the first court appearance. The parties immediately move to another room, are assigned a mediator, and negotiate a settlement without having to wait for the case to proceed through court.
The most common types of disputes that utilize civil mediation are contract, personal injury, medical malpractice, workers compensation, divorce, business, and technology matters. These types of cases can take years to litigate in a regular court, exhaust appeals, and pay out any award. It is not unusual for a personal injury case to take five years or more before a plaintiff sees any money to compensate him for his injuries. Consequently, mediation is a popular choice when both parties want the dispute to be settled as quickly as possible.
Another reason for the parties to pick civil mediation over traditional litigation is the expense. It is much less expensive to pay a mediator to help resolve a dispute than it is to pay a law firm to litigate a case for years. The proceeding is confidential and not subject to the public scrutiny of a case heard in open court. Mediation is also flexible and mutual, providing a less combative start to an already difficult process.
The neutral third party in a civil mediation does not need to be a judge or a lawyer, although some lawyers and people with legal educations do serve in this capacity. Mediators are simply independent parties that are trained in dispute resolution. They often have to meet the continuing educational and experiential requirements of the jurisdiction in which they plan to operate and belong to trade associations that provide certain credentials to acknowledge attainment of professional and ethical standards.