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Small Claims Mediation Basics

Small claims mediation is a meeting between people to resolve a minor legal matter with the help of a neutral third party. Small claims courts hear cases that limit the recovery amount to a set dollar amount. This limit may vary from $2,500 to $25,000 depending on the state. As dockets for small claims courts continue to rapidly increase, courts have instituted policies encouraging and sometimes mandating mediation to assist in the resolution of civil cases when possible.

Small claims mediation, when successful, allows courts to resolve disputes without costly and time-consuming litigation clogging up court dockets. There's no need to worry about a trial date. Mediation has the advantage of saving both time and money, along with the ability to come to a mutually agreed-upon result rather than having a court impose a resolution.

Small claims mediation is beneficial when your dispute is with a friend, neighbor, customer, partner, or anyone with whom you want to keep good ongoing relations. Because small claims mediation is a low-cost or free mechanism, it's a suitable method of resolving disputes more amicably.

This article discusses the basics of small claims mediation as a conflict resolution tool. It will describe how mediation works and how to decide if mediation is right for you.

Mediation Basics

Mediation is a party-driven alternative dispute resolution (ADR) process aimed at reaching a mutually agreeable solution to a dispute. The process is typically voluntary, though courts do mandate the use of the procedure under certain circumstances. The parties communicate directly with each other. The mediator serves as a referee, ensuring the parties stay on track toward achieving a resolution. The parties must mutually agree upon the result to succeed at mediation.

Mediation is often desirable because the parties control the outcome. Parties use it in divorce proceedings and other disputes related to family or probate law. During mediation, underlying issues between the parties may be brought to the forefront to resolve the dispute.

In a small claims situation, this type of collaborative process is often employed for disagreements from civil cases regarding:

  • Evictions and other landlord/tenant matters
  • Homeowners' associations
  • Neighbor disputes
  • Minor property damage

For example, in a dispute over one neighbor's tree branch falling on another neighbor's car, the vehicle may not be the real issue driving the dispute. Perhaps one neighbor is still upset about a perceived slight from the past. Maybe all it takes is an apology and a review of insurance policies to work things out amicably. An experienced mediator will draw this information out and the parties will be better able to settle.

How Does Mediation Work?

Once a small claim complaint has been filed in court and served on the other party, the court may strongly recommend or make a referral for mediation. It's also possible for one of the parties to request mediation at a court hearing.

A party can request small claims mediation through the administrative system where the claim was filed or the small claims mediation service if the court has one. If the court orders parties to attend mediation, they need to appear and attempt the process. If you're the defendant and don't appear for mandatory mediation, the plaintiff may seek a default judgment against you.

Small claims courts often have mediation programs. Court-ordered mediation at a small claims court may be free of charge. If so, there will be no additional filing fees to be paid to the court clerk for mediation. Court mediators may be paid by the court system or be private attorneys doing pro bono (unpaid) work. If there is no court mediation program, the parties can still request mediation. The local bar association will have a list of mediators. The parties may need to share the costs of the mediator.

Mediators may be attorneys. They can also be laypersons or law students who have engaged in training to serve as mediators for small claims mediation. Courts can set qualifications for mediators in their local court rules.

What's the Mediation Setting Like?

You won't be in a courtroom with a judge during mediation. You, the other party, and the mediator will discuss the issues, generally in an office. The mediator may also have an assistant or trainee with them. The mediator has no legal authority over you. A mediator can't order you to do anything, including speak. It's always more helpful to the process for you to be forthcoming with at least general information.

A mediation session is a much more relaxed atmosphere than a courtroom. The mediator often sets the tone of the meeting at its outset. They will go over the rules and procedures so that each party can speak on each issue and also listen to the other party. They can answer common questions about the process before you get started.

At mediation, the parties can express their frustrations and disappointments. As in court, the mediator will ask that they try to keep their emotions in check. The focus will be on finding a solution to the problem that brought them to court. If they reach an agreement, then they can ask the court to adopt the agreement as an order or judgment. A typical mediation lasts anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours.

In contrast, a court hearing would limit the parties to the presentation of evidence and legal arguments. The parties would have no role in deciding the outcome. The court would issue a ruling that day or at a later time.

Is Mediation Right for Me?

Mediation is most successful for those parties who wish to maintain relationships with each other after the case is resolved. Taking part in an acrimonious case before a judge often damages relationships beyond repair. Parties get the most out of the mediation process when they can share their frustrations in a civil manner and discuss various issues that may not come out in court.

Mediation can be well worth the time even for those who don't have a close relationship. A successful mediation eliminates the chance that you will lose your case. You can also maintain control of the process during mediation. In contrast, your case is in the judge's hands once you're in court. 

Finally, mediation offers an immediate resolution and the other party is more likely to pay if they agreed to do so. When a party loses in court, they may tend to drag their feet about paying or abiding by the decision out of anger.

Mediators can help explain the mediation process and potential benefits of resolving a case outside of small claims court. If you believe the other party will be reluctant to accept your offer for mediation, consider informing the court administrator or small claims mediation department. They can reach out to the reluctant party and answer any questions.

Additional Mediation Considerations

Particularly when the other party requests mediation, it's a good idea to invest some time into at least listening to what they have to say. The fact that they want to mediate the dispute signals that they may be open to compromise.

Mediation certainly doesn't work for everyone and may not be for you. It's not set up for the "winner takes all" approach to disputes. Consider your goals in taking your small claims case to court before accepting a mediation request.

You Don't Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer's Help

While mediation can help you avoid court, that doesn't mean it's not challenging in and of itself.  If you aren't sure about something or have questions, it's not a bad idea to meet with an attorney. You can seek legal advice to help you understand your options and educate you on what types of cases are best suited for mediation or arbitration. An attorney can advise you on mediation forms, frequently asked questions, and crafting settlement agreements.

Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help you with your court case or mediation agreement.

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You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

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