There are three reasons litigants should prefer mediation over having a family court judge decide their domestic dispute: control; finality; and cost.
When you let a judge decide your domestic dispute you hand control over significant aspects of your life to another person. The judge will do his or her best to decide your dispute but it will be hard for that judge to know what you truly value and what’s less important to you. At a family court trial it can be strategically difficult to convey one’s hierarchy of goals to the judge. Letting a judge know that one issue isn’t so important if you prevail on another issue almost guarantees you won’t prevail on the less important issue if the other side values it. Thus, the tendency at trial is to treat all issues as important and hope the judge rules in your favor on most issues. However many a litigant has been upset to learn that he or she won on numerous issues of minor importance but lost on a few issues of major concern, with the judge oblivious to what that litigant found important. Further judges often fashion blunt remedies or fashion remedies in which both parties might have been happier had a particular matter resolved differently.
In mediation, one has control over the decision making process. Issues of vital importance can be better protected through the negotiation process than through trial. Issues such as visitation or legal decision making for children can be resolved in a more detailed fashion that can be beneficial to both parties.
Further, even if you don’t get everything you want in mediation, you get to decide what you are willing to give up and what you won’t give up. Assuming mediation results in an agreement, you have controlled every aspect of that agreement and have maintained control over where to compromise and where not to compromise. Finally, you can agree to certain things in mediation that a family court judge could never order or could not order in your particular case.
One reason the litigation process is demeaning is that it is dis-empowering: you lose control over important decisions regarding your life when you allow a judge to make these decisions for you. Owning the resolution of your domestic dispute–as opposed to having that resolution judicially imposed upon you–is empowering. Mediation helps give you back that power.
If you settle a case through mediation in Charleston County and have an executed agreement, you can usually get a court hearing to get the agreement approved, and if seeking divorce to obtain the divorce, within weeks. I have had such agreements approved and made a final order of the court on the same day as the mediation. It’s a short journey from mediated agreement to the end of the case, which means the end of paying your attorney and, if divorcing, the freedom to pursue other romantic relationships. As many clients tell me when their case has resolved through mediation and they have obtained a final order resolving their dispute, there is tremendous relief in knowing the case is over and you can move on.
In contrast, failing to resolve a domestic dispute by agreement requires a resolution via trial. Court time is a very limited resource and docket time for trials is even more limited. Many complex custody or divorce issues can take days of trial time. Expect it to take six months or longer from the time a multi-day trial request is made until the time of trial. After trial, a judge can take weeks (occasionally months) to issue a preliminary ruling and then it can take additional weeks to have the order drafted, signed by the judge, and filed with the court. At that point either party may file a motion for reconsideration, which takes months to resolve.
Then either party can appeal, typically to the Court of Appeals. It’s often two years (or more) from filing the notice of appeal to receiving the written decision. At that point, either party may request rehearing and, when rehearing is denied, that party can seek review from the Supreme Court. Merely seeking review from the Supreme Court can add a year or more to the date of a final resolution. If the Supreme Court accepts review, add yet another year to two years before the case is resolved.
Settling a case through mediation resolves domestic disputes months, and often years, earlier than disputes resolved through trial and appeal. Years in which you could be enjoying life (and your children) are instead spent agonizing over the dispute. Life is short; the value of finality–which allows you to move forward–cannot be overstated.
The final reason to mediate is the cost savings from settling a case without trial (or appeal). While mediation requires paying a mediator’s hourly rate–often a rate slightly lower than that of an attorney– that expense is typically divided between the parties. Further, cases that settle in mediation eliminate the costs of a trial and appeal.
I tell my clients to budget $3,500.00 (at least) for each day of trial, with significant additional costs for trial preparation such as depositions. The budgets for motions for reconsideration and appeals are also significant. No one should approach a family court trial on significant issues (child custody; alimony; property division) with a budget under $10,000.00. In contrast, a day of a certified family court mediator’s time can often be had for $1,400.00, with that cost divided between the parties. I have often recommended my clients attempt two (or more) days of mediation if progress is being made towards resolving the dispute. Such mediation still remains less expensive than a multi-week trial.
The uncertainly, inconclusiveness, and expense of trial should make conflict resolution by trial a last resort, not a first choice. While having an attorney who is afraid to take a case to trial is a serious disadvantage, having an attorney who is too eager to take a case to trial is also counterproductive.