In 2011 there were more than 450,000 total California family law court filings. These situations included divorce, child custody, spousal support, child support, and similar issues. These cases involve the familiar process that most envision in legal disputes: standing in a courtroom, attorneys making arguments, and an ultimate decision handed down by a judge. As Santa Rosa family law attorneys working on high-conflict matters, we help those in our area with contentious issues settle in the courtroom in just this way.
However, we are also aware that some community members may be interested in ways that disputes are being settled which do not follow the traditional courtroom model. Most of these different options are categorized under the term: alternative dispute resolution (ADR). Our California family law attorneys understand that on occasion there may be strategic reasons to explore options outside the traditional court system. However, one should only pursue them after being made fully aware of the implications by a legal professional.
In the family law context, the three most common forms of alternative dispute resolution are mediation, arbitration, and collaborative family law. Mediation is likely the most well-known form of ADR. It involves a third-party who helps clients reach a settlement voluntarily. This process can be stopped at any time by the parties and, even if an agreement is reached, it is only binding when the parties have officially concluded a settlement agreement. At times mediation is used to start the process to determine if a voluntary settlement can be reached. If not, then the traditional litigation approach is pursued.
Similar to mediation, arbitration is led by a neutral third-party. However, unlike mediation, arbitration is generally designed to be binding. In that way it is similar to the process conducted in the regulation litigation system, because parties are forced to abide by the decision handed down by the arbiter. For this reason, some refer to arbitration as a "private court."
Collaborative Family Law is a somewhat new area of ADR. It is an attempt at a less adversarial process where the parties, their attorneys, and others (therapists, child psychologists) agree to resolve the issues while staying out of the courtroom. This is still a somewhat novel approach to resolving these situations, and there are different agreements that are made regarding what happens if no agreement can be reached.
In many cases, one former partner in a relationship will suggest that their divorce, support, or custody dispute be settled out of court using one of these ADR methods while the other party remains unsure if the alternative is appropriate. It is important not to begin an ADR process without being fully aware of the ramifications. That is why it is vital that you never try to go it alone. Be sure to contact an experienced family law attorney to learn whether any of these options would be appropriate in your situation.
Our attorneys realize that the stress of the legal process makes it tempting to jump into these alternatives to settle family law affairs. While ADR may be worthwhile in some situations, it can also lead to one-sided results when entered into lightly. Depending on the specific situation, it may be clear from the outset that you have less to gain by using ADR. For example, an attorney may be able to explain how you are more likely to reach an agreement in your favor by being heard by a regular judge instead of a particular arbiter. In any event, mediation, arbitration, and collaborative family law still require that you have a strong advocate on your side ensuring that your interests and wishes are respected every step of the way.
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