Twenty-five years ago terms like mediation and arbitration were almost unheard of.
Now they are almost routinely used and provide pathways towards mending fences instead of widening the chasm between opposing parties.
LeiLani Armstrong, Early Settlement director for the Tulsa Municipal Court, said the program originally started as Project Early Settlement, a term still used by some people today.
The program is doing well, she continued. It is important to note there are two segments, arbitration and mediation.
She was especially proud of the success of the arbitrators during the past year, noting the group achieved 76 percent of full or partial settlements through settlements in the 153 cases referred by the Tulsa District Court. There have been years when the success rate was 70 percent, 71 percent and 73 percent.
Judges often will ask attorneys during the initial court appearance if they think arbitration will be worthwhile.
Many times lawyers will agree to give arbitration a chance, Armstrong said. They might agree to the proposal despite personal doubts about whether or not it will work.
Sometimes both parties are surprised that a solution is reached.
If not, they wind up back in court. Remember, the meter is running on attorney fees and sometimes the litigation will cost more than the compensation being sought.
Attorneys will sometimes tell their clients the case is too expensive to litigate and an arbitrated settlement probably is the best solution.
But some people, Armstrong added, don’t listen. They just want their day in court.
Volunteer attorneys serve as adjunct settlement judges for these conferences, Armstrong said. These individuals are not judges and do not wear the judicial robes. They are attorneys willing to sit down with people and try to get the differences resolved.
The director is proud of the accomplishments of the 33 volunteer attorneys who are selected by district court judges. They have senior level experience, generally more than 20 years in practice and public representation have served both as a plaintiff and defense attorney. Lengths of conferences vary, from a few hours to a half day or longer.
Measuring the impact of the arbitration program can be difficult, she said. First it greatly reduces the load on the court system, the need for judges and jury. More than anything, it gives litigants a higher degree of control over the proceedings. Most just want to be heard, to tell their stories. Americans like a high degree of control in their cases and these are driving forces in the early settlement process.
It is an open process and mediators also can meet privately with the other side and with the adjunct judge.
That openness changes in the court setting.
Litigants no longer have control because the case is given either to a judge or jury who make decisions on how a person’s life will forever be affected.
That isn’t to say that everyone is happy with the mediation decision, Armstrong added. But they at least will have had a hand in the process. Using the court system, people throw caution to the wind and take their chances on what will happen.
This self-determination and sense of arbitration is very important in the outcome of a case. Some people are afraid of the court system. That is why mediation is becoming so popular.
The Tulsa County Bar Association and attorneys are ‘‘fabulous’’ and very supportive of the program.
For attorneys, an arbitrated outcome often is a win-win situation.
Attorneys in these situations are able to coach clients more easily and have a better relationship when the case ends. The probably will be able to continue to handle their legal affairs, building a long-term relationship.
That might contrast to a client who is very unhappy with an attorney who loses a case in court.
About 40 percent of the mediation team is made up of attorneys, compared to 100 percent in the arbitration division, Armstrong said. There are some differences in the mediation division.
Last year, 1,704 cases were heard.
One unique component is the male and female mediators used in family and divorce cases.
This gives the divorcing couple a feeling that the playing field is level, that one is not being ganged upon. This co-mediation technique has been used since 1996 in the family and divorce cases.
Solo mediators are used on other cases.
Many cases brought to mediation are simple, involving landlord-tenant, creditor-debtor issues, real estate disputes and others. Some want a monetary outcome, but some people just want to be heard, they just want to forum where they can present their side of the story.
Disputes run the gambit, involving all social-economic levels, Armstrong said. Mediation becomes a method of teaching people how to look at problems, sit down and trouble shoot, then come to a resolution.
Sophisticated clients use mediation as a tool to discuss issues and look ahead to how situations might be avoided in the future.
Unsophisticated clients are not used to having this type of structure to resolve problems.
An underlying value is that people get along better and the community is a safer place to live, Armstrong said. There is less violence which also is good for the environment of the whole city.
A third tier of mediation also is being taught during the school year.
Armstrong said students are being taught the process, learning how to mediate on the playground, resolving issues before they become catastrophic at school and the community.
‘‘I would like to think that in 30 to 50 years this would be a less litigious society and people would get along with relatives and friends much better,’’ she said. Now, people don’t think about the large number of people affected either by arbitration or mediation cases. Think about it. In the 1,704 mediation cases there were at least 2,808 people involved in mediation. Add another 356 in arbitration. The total basic number would be 3,714 if only two litigants were at the table. That seldom is the case because more are on the sidelines awaiting the outcome. It is easy to see that more than 4,000 people have been affected in the process during the past year.
Armstrong can be reached at 596-7746.