Dispute Resolution and the Courts: What You Need to Know

The following article is a collaboration between the Dispute Resolution Center of King County’s Executive Director Patti Dinsmore and the King County District Court’s Judge Donna Tucker.

It was originally posted in the May 2019 Bar Bulletin of the King County Bar Association

Dispute Resolution and the Courts: What You Need to Know 

May 1, 2019

By Judge Donna Tucker and Patti Dinsmore

From small claims to anti-harassment — and more — King County residents have multiple options for resolving conflicts. While people often think first of the courts when they have problems with another party, dispute resolution offers an effective alternative in many conflicts.

The King County District Court (KCDC) and the non-profit Dispute Resolution Center of King County (DRC) have collaborated for decades to help our respective services run more smoothly — benefitting residents and attorneys.

Dispute Resolution Centers: A Brief History

The Washington Legislature adopted the Court Improvement Act in 1984, which sought, in part, to stimulate the development and use of dispute resolution centers (DRCs) as an alternative to the courts for resolving certain issues.

Since then, 20 DRCs have been established in the state to provide alternative dispute resolution, mediation and training services. DRCs are mandated to provide services independent of clients’ ability to pay, guaranteeing that all citizens have access to a low-cost resolution process when they cannot afford litigation and/or when they want to work things out directly with the other parties involved. Each year, Washington’s DRCs serve more than 80,000 people with the help of more than 45,000 volunteer hours.

How Dispute Resolution Works

The Dispute Resolution Center of King County assists parties in small claims and anti-harassment disputes, as well as providing free mediation services to seniors (55+) and veterans involved in housing disputes (e.g., neighbor/roommate problems, landlord and tenant, foreclosures, divorce).

The DRC uses a style called “facilitative, interest-based mediation.” This approach is effective for most types of disputes, and is particularly helpful for disputes involving long-term relationships such as those among business partners, neighbors, separating spouses with children, coworkers, families, and departments in organizations.

Three elements that make this approach work well are: voice, choice and mutual obligation:

• Voice: Parties are empowered to speak for themselves, both in terms of how they understand their dispute and what they believe will help them to resolve the matter and move forward.

• Choice: Parties are empowered to make choices they can live with; therefore, the mediation process needs to gain their buy-in while also giving them pathways to own — and follow through on — their agreements.

• Mutual obligation: Due to the self-determined nature of the facilitative mediation process, parties have a duty to speak for themselves and to weigh options for moving forward.

What About Attorneys?

Even if parties choose the facilitative style of mediation, it might still be beneficial for them to consult an attorney about their legal rights. The DRC does not give legal advice or advocate for either client, but will refer parties to attorneys who are familiar with mediation/dispute resolution, who can offer advice.

The DRC welcomes attorneys to participate in mediation; however, clients can participate with or without counsel present. The DRC also can accommodate clients who need to check with their attorneys prior to signing an agreement.

Ways KCDC and DRC Collaborate

The dispute resolution process provides parties the opportunity to seek private and non-punitive resolution in many conflicts that the courts are not always empowered to settle.

The collaborative relationship of the King County District Court and the Dispute Resolution Center of King County allows parties to resolve disputes that involve more than just monetary recovery. Examples of possible resolutions include:

• repair work done again;
• return of property;
• payment plans for those who need the time and the means to fulfill obligations;
• social media non-disparagement actions; and
• sometimes, a simple apology or recognition of harm.

The goal is to expand the parties’ access to justice through more communication around creative and transformative solutions to conflict.

One example of the ways our two organizations collaborate is that District Court communicates to small claims parties that pre-trial mediation services are required and will be provided prior to being assigned a trial date. The court reserves a separate day for pre-trial mediations, which allows everyone in the small claims dispute to focus on the fulfillment of mediation services.

Additionally, KCDC assists DRC with space for the parties and mediator to meet. Judges and court personnel also set aside time to meet with DRC managers and leads, to facilitate healthy communication and process improvement of the pre-trial mediation experience.

This collaboration has been a win/win for everyone. The parties in the dispute benefit, while having the court set aside time for the pretrial mediation ensures that skilled mediators, who are leaving their professions to donate their time, have a case to mediate.

How Attorneys Benefit From Dispute Resolution

The dispute resolution process offers attorneys an effective option to recommend to their clients, especially in conflicts where the parties will still be in contact with one another, and thus need to heal and move beyond the bad feelings of the dispute. Such closure is not always the case in a court proceeding, where one party’s “win” often means another party’s “loss.”

Whether your clients participate in dispute resolution or not, attorneys also enjoy the benefits of a more efficient court system. By resolving conflicts and taking cases off the judges’ calendars, dispute resolution helps provide judges more time to engage with attorneys and their clients, instead of feeling under pressure to rush along to the next case.

Finally, for attorneys looking for continuing legal education, the Dispute Resolution Center of King County offers trainings, practicum and a “Basic Mediation Training,” which provide CLE credits.

It is important to remember that although the facilitative mediation process involves “soft” skills (e.g., active listening, collaborative negotiation) in contrast to “hard” skills such as substantive legal reasoning and fact finding, the work often can be complex and requires handling delicate matters in a sensitive way. We strongly encourage the legal community to attend a basic mediation training to gain an experiential view of the substance and complexity of the work mediators do.

Judge Donna Tucker is chief presiding judge for King County District Court. It is the largest court of limited jurisdiction in Washington, responsible for processing approximately 250,000 matters per year.

Patti Dinsmore is executive director for the Dispute Resolution Center of King County, a nonprofit organization that has offered affordable mediation and conflict resolution services for individuals, businesses and families since 1986.