Federal Court Mediation

The Problem: Proponents of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) claim that it furthers social welfare on at least four separate dimensions: conserving judicial resources, conserving party resources, increasing party satisfaction, and increasing party compliance with the decision or outcome.

Opponents, meanwhile, claim that direct negotiation can achieve these same benefits, and that the high cost of litigation provides a strong incentive for parties to settle on their own.

Is the presence of the ADR neutral (a mediator, a judge) is really necessary to help the parties do what they could do on their own via direct negotiation? Who is right?

May 26, 2016

Federal Court Mediation

Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR)

Almost every court system in the nation has an ADR program, and for most courts, at least some classes of litigants are compelled to use it before or during formal litigation.

The most common forms of ADR are:

  • Mediation: sessions in which the parties and/or their lawyers meet with a neutral (the “mediator”) who attempts to find common ground. Mediation format can be caucus or non-caucus, depending on whether (or not) the mediator meets each party outside of the presence of the other. Mediation can be evaluative or facilitative, depending on whether (or not) the mediator provides her views as to the merit of the dispute.
  • Judicial settlement conference: similar to mediations in the goal and the format, but the neutral is a judge or other decision-maker. Judicial settlement conferences are evaluative.

The Study

The present study is the first of any kind to evaluate rigorously all of the dimensions ADR proponents cite in advocating such programs. We conducted a randomized control trial in one setting: civil rights cases brought by inmates in one federal correctional facility in Nevada.

Field operation

After a thorough screening and intake process, consenting individuals were randomized into one of two groups:

  • Treated group: mediation
  • Control group: strong suggestion to negotiate


Randomization has closed, and more than half of the cases have reached final resolution. Data we will analyze:

  • Federal court case records
  • Number of hours spent by state attorneys general per case
  • Case outcomes, in both settlements and court orders
  • Inmate plaintiff surveys
  • Future complaints

The Research Team

Jim Greiner, Faculty Director, Access to Justice Lab; Professor of Law, Harvard Law School