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2008 Crystal Scales of Justice: a quick, simple and free mediation for small claims

On the occasion of the European Day of Civil Justice, the Council of Europe and the European Commission, during a ceremony at the Catania Court of Appeal (Italy), disclosed the identity of the “Crystal Scales of Justice” award winner in this European competition intended to further innovative methods applied in a court with a view to improving the quality and efficiency of judicial service.

The winning project is an initiative by “Her Majesty’s Courts Service” (United Kingdom), offering litigants a quick, simple and free mediation for small claims. Each case is assessed on the facts and the mediator encourages openminded discussions with the disputing parties to arrive at a range of possible settlement outcomes, which are not exclusively financial.

The majority of parties with small claims (those valued under 5,000) have no legal representation, with the result that most cases go on to a hearing before a judge. Small claims hearings represented some 74% of all hearings in the county courts of England and Wales in 2007.

Since it can cost as little as 25 to issue a small claim in the courts, it is unrealistic to expect small claims users to pay for mediation. Nevertheless, there is evidence that many of these disputes could be settled prior to a hearing. This would be a good result for the parties, but also for Her Majesty’s Courts Service (HMCS), as the cost of processing defended small claims cases is not fully recovered through fees.

That is why the Small Claims Mediation Service was set up. Although court users pay an initial court fee, there is no further cost for using the mediation service, and if unsuccessful, users can still have their dispute heard by a court. This makes good sense for users, and also frees up judicial time. During the year to the end of November 2008, there have been almost 8,000 mediations, freeing up an estimated 5,500 hours of judicial time.

Mediation is also quicker. Taking a small claim to a full court hearing takes several months, while most mediations can be arranged and concluded in a few weeks. Settlements reached through mediation can be more flexible than those available to a judge. There have been a number of innovative settlements, including donations to charity, apologies, a courtesy car during repair work, and re-activation of business contracts.

The quality and compliance of settlement outcomes is also higher because the parties shape the terms of the settlement agreement. So, unlike a court hearing, where 12-13% of cases require some form of enforcement action, the settlements reached in a small claims mediation are complied with in 99% of cases.

Furthermore, the fact that the vast majority of mediations (97%) are by telephone, means parties can resolve their disputes without having to travel to court, saving both time and expense. It is particularly useful in areas that are inaccessible or poorly served by public transport, and has also been helpful to those who are elderly, have a disability or have caring responsibilities.

To date, of more than 2600 customers that have responded to the online survey, 98% are satisfied or very satisfied with the professionalism and helpfulness of the mediators. 95% say that they would use the service again, and even 86% of users, whose cases did not settle at mediation, say they would use the service again.

The principle benefits for the Department are therefore twofold:
an enhanced service to customers – they tell is it is quicker, cheaper and less stressful than the normal court process; and
a reduction in the number of small claims hearings, enabling the judiciary to concentrate on those cases that require the specialist knowledge and expertise of a judge.

James Rustidge
Mediator, "Her Majesty’s Courts Service"