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April 21, 2017

Study Finds Litigants Are in the Dark about Court Dispute Resolution Programs

As court systems throughout the country struggle to deliver civil justice in the face of major budget cuts, a new study by a University of California, Davis, law professor finds that fewer than one-third of people with cases filed in state court even know about their court's mediation and arbitration programs.

In recent years, state courts have been overburdened with litigants seeking civil justice in a system still recovering from the economic downturn. In many cases, alternative dispute resolution procedures such as mediation and nonbinding arbitration can provide litigants with relief from the expense and waiting time associated with trial. However, such procedures provide little opportunity for justice to litigants who are unaware of their existence.

Over 330 litigants from three state courts were asked in a phone survey, after their cases ended, whether their court offered mediation or arbitration. All study participants had cases that were eligible for both procedures through their court.

"The findings from this study raise serious questions about whether plaintiffs and defendants understand what procedures are available to them, and how meaningfully they participate in decisions about how to handle their legal conflicts," said Donna Shestowsky, a UC Davis professor of law who is the report's author.

The study, forthcoming in Harvard Negotiation Law Review, found that only 24 percent of litigants correctly reported that their court sponsored mediation, and only 27 percent correctly stated that their court offered arbitration.

Even worse, represented litigants were not significantly more likely to know about their court's procedures than were those who handled their case without a lawyer.

Litigants who knew their court offered mediation had more favorable views of their court, but a similar result did not emerge for arbitration.

The study also found that when litigants correctly identified their court as offering arbitration, they were more than twice as likely to consider using arbitration for their case.

"The study suggests that courts should invest resources to ensure that litigants know about their procedures. By making these efforts, litigants might be more apt to consider using the programs in which the courts have already invested, and give courts the credit they deserve," said Shestowsky.

Shestowsky's project is the first known multijurisdictional study to explore how civil litigants assess procedures at various points of time during the same lawsuit. 

The article, "When Ignorance Is Not Bliss: An Empirical Study of Litigants' Awareness of Court-Sponsored Alternative Dispute Resolution Programs," is forthcoming in volume 22 (spring 2017) of the Harvard Negotiation Law Review.

The study was funded by grants from the National Science Foundation, the American Bar Association Section on Litigation, the Norm Brand '75 & Nancy Spero ADR Research Fund, and UC Davis.