The study described in this article attempted to discover the reason for differences in effectiveness between small claims cases that were adjudicated and those that were mediated in four district courts in the Boston area. After comparing case characteristics, the author determined that the differences were based upon the processes themselves rather than the characteristics of the disputes and the disputants using each procedure.
Description of Study: Examined the claims of McEwen and Maiman (1981, 1984) and Vidmar (1985) as to the reasons for compliance in mediation. Also looked at the hypothesis that differences in results between mediation and adjudication were not the result of differences inherent in the processes, but were due to other factors.
Method: Interviewed 3 groups of small claims litigants in 4 courts in the Boston area - those that mediated and settled, those who mediated and then went to trial, and those who only went to trial. Interviews were conducted 6-12 weeks after the court date.
Comparison Groups: Litigants who mediated and settled, those who mediated and then went to trial, and those who only went to trial
Sample Size: 281 litigants in 221 cases: 72 cases that reached agreement in mediation (60% response rate), 53 cases that went to trial after reaching impasse (64% response rate), and 96 cases that only went to trial (36% response rate in 2 courts, 16% in 2 courts)
Variables Examined: Likelihood of settlement, compliance, perceived fairness of the process, satisfaction with the process, whether the outcome was seen to be fair and satisfying
Program Variables: Voluntary program mediated by volunteers without charge to the parties.
Findings: Litigants were significantly more likely to view the mediation process as fair: fairness ratings were 77% for those who successfully mediated, 76% for those who mediated but did not reach agreement, and 62% for those who only went to trial. Of those who went to trial after mediation, only 56% found the trial to be fair.
Those who reached agreement in mediation were significantly more likely to be satisfied with the process than the other groups: 79% of parties in that group were satisfied, compared to 60% of those who did not reach agreement, 61% who only experienced trial, and 56% of those who went to trial after mediation (regarding the trial only). There was no statistical difference in participant attitudes toward the outcome. Of those who reached agreement in mediation, 57% felt the outcome was fair and satisfying, compared to 48% of those who only went to trial and 49% of those who went to trial after mediation.
Contrary to Vidmar's (1985) findings, the degree of admitted liability did not significantly affect settlement or choice of procedure. Disputants with past or ongoing relationships were not more likely to choose mediation or reach agreement. Successful mediation and adjudication groups can be distinguished with 85% accuracy on the basis of 10 process characteristics. Unsuccessful mediation participants described their mediations and trials differently on 5 of 6 measures - thus, mediation and adjudication are different processes. Compliance was only marginally more likely in mediated cases than adjudication cases. Like McEwen & Maiman (1981), this study finds that process differences lead to differences in the participants’ evaluation.