Many Americans are taking disputes to mediators, not courts. 350 programs across US help solve conflicts quickly, cheaply

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

McJustice? Fast food is common, but fast dispensation of justice has been an anomaly, until now. Mediation and arbitration services have become marketable commodities that dramatically decrease the time and expense of solving legal disputes, says Michael Gillie, a Seattle attorney who is president of United States Arbitration Services, a private concern.

Mr. Gillie has established 20 franchises across the United States for ``alternative dispute resolution'' (ADR). He says his operation is growing at the rate of a ``state a month.''

Many people are finding that, in certain types of cases, it is simpler and cheaper to take disputes to mediators rather than hire lawyers and go to court. A mediator is a neutral person with expertise in the particular area of law involved. Unlike an arbitrator, a mediator cannot impose a binding agreement on the parties to the dispute. But he or she often can help the parties come to a mutually acceptable resolution.

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Typical mediation agreements are reached within 90 days at an overall cost of about $600, says Gillie. This is far faster and less costly than the litigation route.

``ADR is applied in a wide variety of areas - landlord-tenant [disputes], barking dog, family law,'' says Gillie. ``We have an 80 percent settlement rate. People find it better to reach a settlement than have a decision forced on them [by a court].''

There is a mediation ``explosion'' says Larry Ray, director of the American Bar Association's Standing Committee on Dispute Resolution. ``Ten years ago there were only a handful of mediation programs. Now, there are 350 programs throughout the country in every major city.''

Mr. Ray says that in 1976 there were approximately 2,500 community mediators, while today there are 20,000. More than 20 states have dispute-resolution statutes and 120 state and local bar associations have established ADR committees. The ABA has helped establish ``multidoor court systems'' in the District of Columbia, Tulsa, Okla., and Houston, says Ray. In such systems, court personnel help the disputants determine what forum is most suitable for them.

Ray says 40 jurisdictions are seeking to replicate the programs of those three cities.

He explains that mediation is often the best course in neighborhood disputes,``where people have to deal with each other after a problem is resolved.''

The mediation boom ``is not a passing fancy. It's becoming a permanent part of the legal system,'' Ray adds.

Insurance cases are tailormade for dispute resolution, he says, because the law is specific and in most cases the chief need is to sort out the facts surrounding the claims.

Travelers Insurance Company settled 48l cases through mediation in 1985. That figure jumped to 1,400 in 1986, says Kathleen Cullen, director of the property and casualty claims department of Travelers. Ms. Cullen says mediation saves an average of $1,000 a case and reduces time expended from years to days. Litigation can take anywhere from 12 to 60 months depending on the jurisdiction.

``This process saves money [and] is quicker and less painful than the civil justice system,'' says Cullen. And it is fairer than many trials, she says, where often ``a jury verdict nowhere resembles damage to the parties involved.''

In mediation, a party may discuss a settlement proposal with the mediator in a confidential caucus. The specific proposal is not communicated to the other side; rather, the mediator discusses settlement with the other side and look for an overlap.

Where unreasonable claims are normal in court proceedings, face-to-face analysis of claims with a mediator makes sustaining unreasonable claims more difficult.

The American Arbitration Association, a private, nonprofit mediation service, handled 5,000 cases for 75 insurance companies in 1986, and the service had an overall caseload of 47,000. Association vice-president Robert E. Meade says there ``is just no end to it.''

He has 32 offices and a staff of 435. Mr. Meade's mediators are lawyers or retired judges. He says they settle 95 percent of the cases - 47 percent with the first phone call. ``Companies like it [ADR] because their dirty laundry isn't marched out in public,'' says Meade.

He credits the Center for Public Resources for ``waking up the corporate community'' to the advantages of ADR. The center, which refers disputing parties to mediation services, got 200 of the Fortune 500 companies to sign a policy statement saying ADR would be their first option in the event of a dispute.

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