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Dispute Resolution in Federal Courts: New Study to Look at How It's Working

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The different ways federal district courts provide settlement assistance to parties is the focus of a new study by the Federal Judicial Center (FJC). Eight district courts are participating in the study to be completed by late 2014.

“We hope to provide a thorough picture of the variety of ways in which the federal district courts have designed and use their ADR procedures,” said Donna Stienstra, the project’s director. “We’ll look at mediation, arbitration, early neutral evaluation, and judicial settlement conferences, and will try to describe how—and how well—these procedures work from the perspective of all the participants and from information reported in court records.”

In 2011, Stienstra and her co-researchers compiled a summary report — an inventory of what the local rules authorized the courts to do on ADR. Now they’ll be collecting, in three different ways, empirical data about how these programs work: coding data from dockets and documents in the cases, surveying lawyers, litigants, and court neutrals, and interviewing judges, court staff, and others who have participated in designing, revising, and using ADR procedures in the study courts.

Under 28 USC § 651 (pdf) each federal district court “shall devise and implement its own alternative dispute resolution program,” to encourage and promote the use of alternative dispute resolution in all civil actions in its district. The alternative dispute resolution process includes any process or procedure, other than an adjudication by a presiding judge, in which a neutral third party participates to assist in the resolution of issues in controversy.

Federal district courts began developing ADR procedures in the 1970s, but according to a 2011 FJC study, ADR growth took off in response to the Civil Justice Reform Act of 1990. Currently, according to court local rules, more than a third of the district courts authorize multiple forms of ADR. Roughly one-third authorize just one form of ADR, usually mediation. The remaining courts provide general authorization to use ADR and/or authorize such procedures as settlement conferences.

The Center is conducting the study at the request of the Judicial Resources Committee and the Court Administration and Case Management Committee.

Participating Study Courts

The districts selected for the study represent a variety of approaches to ADR and also vary in size and region of the country.

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