Domestic cases such as divorce and child custody damaged needed relationships and were costly to litigate, the Fayetteville attorney said. Smith, a lawyer for more than 32 years, who became a mediator in 2000.
Mediation as an alternative to litigation is increasing in Northwest Arkansas and across the state. According to the Arkansas Alternative Dispute Resolution Commission, 378 cases were resolved with mediation in 2013; 400 cases in 2014 and 500 cases in 2015.
Mediators have to report when talks ordered by judges are resolved, so those are the only statistics tracked by the commission.
No reporting requirement means there’s no way to track the not court-ordered mediation, said former Benton County Circuit Judge Jon Comstock, who is now a mediator. But mediators in the region said those numbers also are seeing significant growth.
“I can just tell you that my experience is that about one-half of my mediation are not court-ordered,” Comstock said.
Settling disputes through mediation saves money, eases the court caseload and generally leaves the opposing parties in a better state of mind, mediators and attorneys said.
“I have been an attorney for over 32 years now, and I can honestly say that when we reach a successful mediated agreement, both sides of the case shake my hand and express their appreciation,” Smith said. “They even walk to their cars together and actually talk.
“But I can recall many times where I, as a lawyer, tried a contested case and my client prevailed in the decision, but that client never shook my hand or said ‘thanks.”
“It is satisfying seeing people resolve their disputes, and helping them navigate that settlement without a judge having to tell them how it will be resolved,” Cripps said.
“A good mediator tells both parties the strong points of their cases, but also emphasizes the weak points,” Fulmer said.
Mediation is about finding common ground, he said. For example, a person’s relative dies during a surgical procedure and being objective about that is hard.
“It may take a third party to say your relative had a bad heart that led to the results,” he said.
The increase in mediation meant some growing pains at first as attorneys familiarized themselves with a new process, Smith said.
“Once the attorneys realized mediation was better than the old-fashioned way of exchanging settlement offers back and forth through the mail, they became more open to the process. And now many domestic relations attorneys go to mediation as a regular part of their bigger divorce and custody cases,” he said.