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Not every legal dispute requires going through formal court proceedings. People often choose to pursue alternative forms of dispute resolution that are less adversarial, less costly, and more efficient. In other situations, two parties will sign an agreement in advance that requires any dispute related to their relationship to proceed through an alternative dispute resolution forum. Courts usually will uphold these agreements unless they are extremely unfair.

Moreover, most lawsuits end without a full trial. Some are dismissed, but many are resolved at a settlement conference. This involves the parties reaching a compromise with the assistance of a judge, who then dismisses the underlying case.

Arbitration

Arbitration is often viewed favorably because it can resolve a dispute more quickly than going to court. An arbitrator or a panel of arbitrators will decide the outcome. The process is more flexible and less formal than a trial in court, although the parties still will call witnesses, cross-examine opposing witnesses, and present documents and other evidence. A decision made in arbitration is binding on the parties, unless the parties have agreed that the arbitration will be non-binding. However, in contrast to court proceedings, it does not become part of a public record. The losing side can appeal the outcome of an arbitration to court, but generally these appeals are unsuccessful because courts give considerable deference to arbitrators.

Mediation

Mediation usually is voluntary and tends to be less formal than arbitration. A mediator is different from an arbitrator because they do not impose a binding decision on the parties. Instead, the mediator will facilitate the conversation between them as they reach their own resolution. A mediator might propose suggestions based on their understanding of the case, but the parties will not be obliged to accept the suggestions. The parties and the mediator may be in the same room, or the parties may be in different rooms while the mediator transmits their communications to each other. Mediation usually is successful only if both sides genuinely commit to the process, although sometimes courts require it before a case proceeds to trial. Read more here about how arbitration and mediation typically function.

Administrative Hearings

Administrative hearings occur in cases based on administrative law, most notably claims for disability benefits, workers’ compensation, or other forms of government benefits. You have a right to an attorney in these hearings, but an attorney is not required. An administrative law judge (ALJ) will make the decision, since the right to a jury does not apply. The ALJ will hold a pre-hearing conference to clarify the scope of the dispute and understand the position of each party. The hearing will be similar to a trial, with opening statements, the presentation of witness testimony and other evidence, and closing statements. Each side may submit a closing brief. The ALJ then will issue a final decision, explaining how they applied the law to the facts. Either side can object to the decision, which involves asking the ALJ to reconsider it. They also have a right to appeal to a higher level of the administrative process. Read more here about how administrative hearings unfold.

Settlement Conferences

Settlement conferences have become a critical part of the American legal system. Many litigants would prefer to reach their own resolution of a dispute rather than allowing a jury to make the final decision. As a result, the vast majority of lawsuits in the U.S. end with a settlement. States encourage settlement conferences as a matter of public policy and may even require the parties to participate in a conference before they can take a case to trial. A judge will preside over the settlement conference and listen to the arguments of each side. They will facilitate the negotiations and can make suggestions, but they cannot force the parties to settle against their will. If the parties reach a settlement, they will draft and sign a settlement agreement. The judge then will dismiss the lawsuit. If the parties cannot reach a settlement, the case will continue toward trial. Read more here about what to expect in a settlement conference.

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