How Much It Costs to Mediate a Neighbor Dispute

Tips for finding low-cost mediation services to help resolve a neighbor issue.

Disputes, whether neighbor-related or otherwise, can be expensive to resolve. This is certainly true in litigation, where attorneys can cost hundreds of dollars an hour. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be true in mediation.

In mediation, it is not required that you and your neighbor hire separate attorneys. Indeed, it’s often more efficient and productive if it’s just three of you around the table – you, your neighbor, and the neutral mediator. Having attorneys sitting beside you or speaking for you in a mediation can sometimes inhibit compromise. (After all, attorneys have a natural inclination to promote their own client’s rights, sometimes at the expense of reasonable compromise).

Free Mediation Nonprofits

So if the only third-party required is a mediator, how much does he or she cost? More good news: Often, the mediator is free, or at least low-cost.

If you live in a large city, chances are you can find low-cost or no-cost mediation services provided by local courts, bar associations or not-for-profits. State and local governments actually give funding to these organizations because judges and legislators would rather see disputes resolved outside of court when possible.

As a result, many of these nonprofits have rosters of mediators (sometimes called “neutrals”) who are experienced attorneys or retired judges. Some have backgrounds in community organizing, social work, or psychology. Examples of organizations that provide free mediation services include the New York Peace Institute in New York, the Center for Conflict Resolution in Chicago, or the Centre for Mediation and Dispute Resolution in Boston.

Law School Mediation Clinics

Law schools are another venue to consider. Some have mediation “clinics,” in which law professors and students work together to resolve conflicts for free. Four of the most well-regarded mediation clinics are (including contact information for the clinic directors) are: 1) Cardozo Law School’s Mediation Clinic in New York, 2) Harvard Law School’s Negotiation and Mediation Clinical Program in Boston, 3) the University of Pennsylvania’s Mediation Clinic in Philadelphia, and 4) Pepperdine Law School’s Mediation Clinic in Malibu.

One advantage of contacting a law school’s mediation clinic is that they are often willing to give a great deal of time to your case. Part of their goal is to help train their students by showing them a real-life legal conflict. As a result, leading law professors with a great deal of conflict resolution experience could be at your disposal for long sessions. Hiring such a person privately might be prohibitively expensive.

Finding a Paid Mediator

Not all cities offer access to these free services, unfortunately. And sometimes, “free” isn’t always the way to go. Your particular dispute might be very complicated, and some nonprofits are willing to give only a certain number of hours of mediation time for free.

Your dispute might also involve a substantive area of law. An example would be a dispute over construction, where your neighbor’s contractor is damaging your home in the manner in which he is drilling into the ground. Here, it might be helpful to have a mediator who has legal experience with construction law and is familiar with the particular local statutes on drilling, case law for negligent engineering, and range of damages available. Such mediators might cost several hundred dollars per hour, depending on your jurisdiction and their level of experience.

Convincing Your Neighbor to Pay a Share

Suppose you approach your neighbor about the conflict, and bring up the idea of going to a paid mediator. Your neighbor agrees to sit through a mediation, but refuses to pay anything. Obviously, this could place a large financial burden on you; remember that mediators will likely charge for the time involved in:

  1. reviewing documents ahead of the mediation
  2. having conference calls with the parties
  3. the session itself, which can take hours or days depending on the complexity, and
  4. sometimes preparing a written report after the session.

These hours can add up. There is also a sense of unfairness; mediation is about both parties participating equally in the process, and there’s something to be said for both parties having “skin in the game.”

What should you do? Try subtly reminding your neighbor of what lawyers refer to as the BATNA – the best alternative to a negotiated agreement. If you’re hiring a mediator, chances are the dispute is significant enough that it could go to court. This means that your neighbor would ultimately need to spend money one way or another, either to hire a mediator now, or to hire a lawyer later on. Remind your neighbor that a mediator is often less expensive than a private attorney, and if the dispute can be resolved in just a few hours or days, his or her expenses would surely be lower than they would be during a protracted court battle.

If your neighbor still does not consent to paying for the cost of the mediator, you might have no choice but to hire a lawyer. Your lawyer can send a letter to your adversary, which might frighten him or her into paying a fair share.

If this still does not work, your lawyer can file a complaint (that is, begin litigation against your neighbor). This will essentially force your neighbor to begin spending money hiring an attorney of his or her own. From that point, the two attorneys might be able to request that the judge order mediation, which judges will sometimes do when they believe that a case can be settled without the time and expense of a trial.

Mediation is generally far less expensive than litigation. As explained here, it can often be completely free, thanks to the work of law school clinics and not-for-profit organizations. And when you do have to pay for a mediator, the good news is that both sides should generally split the costs evenly. If the case settles in mediation, both you and your neighbor can leave with the confidence that you did not waste years of blood and treasure on needless, expensive litigation.

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