How Litigants View the ADR Options in Courts

By Alice Albl

At the Sept. 17 online CPR Institute Mediation Committee meeting, University of California, Davis, School of Law School Prof. Donna Shestowsky presented her research about the role courts play in encouraging alternative dispute resolution over a trial.

The study revealed that litigants seem to be unaware of ADR options when going to court, although knowing about some of these options—specifically, mediation–improve litigants’ opinions of the court itself.

This lack of awareness stayed relatively consistent among demographics, even among those with legal representation.  

“Repeat player” litigants were less likely than first timers to report uncertainty or confusion whether ADR options were available.

Shestowsky’s research observed the experiences of more than 350 litigants spread among the court systems of three different states.

The first system, in California, allowed litigants to choose between a trial, or opting into mediation or arbitration.

The second system, in Utah, assigned mediation as the default option but allowed litigants to convert their cases into an arbitration or trial.

The third system, in Oregon, statutorily required nonbinding arbitration for cases involving amounts in controversy less than $50,000. Litigants could opt-out by filing a “Motion for Exemption from Arbitration,” or by agreeing with their opposition to enter mediation.

All three court systems posted information online about available ADR programs and kept a list of approved neutrals on file. None required attorneys to educate their clients about the available ADR options.

Litigants in the study took a survey before and after their journey through the courts. The questions sought to gauge litigants’ awareness about relevant court-sponsored ADR programs, whether legal representation affected their awareness, and how awareness of court-sponsored ADR affected litigants’ opinions of the court offering the options.

The data Shestowsky reaped from these surveys revealed some unexpected findings. While roughly half of the litigants were unsure whether mediation and arbitration were available to them, another 20% wrongly stated these options were unavailable.

Without knowledge of the court systems’ sponsorship for mediation or arbitration, litigants most often considered negotiation as a means for dispute resolution, even before the prospect of a trial.  

While about a third of litigants considered mediation, knowing that the method was a court-sponsored option generally improved their opinion of the sponsoring court system.

Arbitration was only considered by about one quarter of the litigants, and knowledge of court sponsorship did little to affect litigants’ opinions of sponsoring courts. Shestowsky attributed this to the possibility that litigants had low opinions of arbitration as an option for their court-filed cases, which aligned with findings from her past research.

Having a lawyer did not make litigants more aware of ADR options, even when those options were offered, or even mandated, by the court system.

Shestowsky pointed out this universally low awareness rate of ADR options as an issue to address among courts, especially given how awareness seemed to improve court favorability.

One possible solution would be rules that require attorneys to properly educate clients about ADR options before engaging the courts, which could be enforced using penalty fees or an affidavit.

Shestowsky also suggested that courts implement “direct education.” This could involve bolstered advertisement of ADR options, a dedicated ADR helpdesk, and periodic information sessions. The professor, who serves as UC Davis School of Law’s Director of the Lawyering Skills Education Program, even envisioned an artificial intelligence-powered digital aide that could recommend options based on litigants’ specific needs.

While Shestowsky cautioned that her research focusing on three court systems may not perfectly reflect the general state of ADR awareness, the consistency of data among the diverse systems could point to a greater trend. To gauge this, the professor recommended that courts across the nation buck the trend of measuring success for ADR programs by their usage rates, and first look to their awareness rates by surveying those who do not use their ADR programs.

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Donna Shestowsky previously discussed her research at “New Research Sheds Light on How Litigants Evaluate the Characteristics of Legal Procedures,” 34 Alternatives 145 (November 2016) (available at https://bit.ly/2ScA71w), which adapted and updated material from Donna Shestowsky, “How Litigants Evaluate the Characteristics of Legal Procedures: A Multi-Court Empirical Study,” 49 U.C. Davis L. Rev. 3 (2016) (available at http://ssrn.com/abstract=2729893).

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The author, a CPR Institute Fall 2020 intern, is a second-year student at Brooklyn Law School in New York.

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