Many small claims courts have what are known as a court-annexed or court-affiliated mediation programs. This means that there are mediators available inside the courthouse, running sessions in private conference rooms concurrent with the judge's trial schedule. If you are in a dispute with a neighbor, and are offered an opportunity to participate in such a mediation program, should you take it?
These types of mediation programs are normally run by nonprofit organizations, which partner with your state's court system. Representatives from the courts and/or the mediation organizations will often look for cases that they believe might be well-suited to mediation. This takes the pressure off the court system and can result in an agreement that both sides are ready to live with.
Mediation is essentially a facilitated conversation between you and your neighbor, which is led by a trained third-party individual. Typically, that individual has a background in law, social work, or community development. That person also went through extensive mediation training and is familiar with the most effective ways of resolving different types of conflicts in the small claims setting.
Mediation is entirely voluntary. So if either you, as the claimant who brought the lawsuit, or your neighbor, as the defendant, would prefer to see the judge, you will not be forced to mediate. However, mediation is absolutely worth considering and possibly worth trying.
There are often both monetary and non-monetary problems involved in a problematic relationship with a neighbor. But in many states, a small claims court judge can help you recover only for monetary losses; for example, the value of plants and landscape lighting that the neighbor's rampaging dog destroyed.
But what if your concerns with a neighbor are broader? For example, you would like the neighbor to take steps to supervise a dog, deal with a dying tree that might land on your property, or respect your need for quiet late at night or early in the morning? These are issues that might be better resolved through a facilitated dialogue, which could not only involve the neighbor agreeing to take steps to resolve the issues, but also include a monetary settlement.
Another advantage to mediation is that, because both parties must agree to the result, the neighbor is more likely to abide by it. (By contrast, even if you win your small claims court case, the neighbor could dig in and simply refuse to pay what's owed, and you would need to follow up.)
Remember, if mediation does not result in a settlement, you can still see the small claims court judge. And one of the benefits of mediation is that, even if the case does not settle, it can clarify the issues between you and your neighbor, so to better prepare you for the how the neighbor will present his or her case at the trial.