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Federal Way court offers mediation service without judges or lawyers

Federal Way Municipal Court is giving disputing parties a way to solve their problems without lawyers or a judge.

The court began offering a dispute resolution program earlier this year. The King County Dispute Resolution Center operates the program out of Federal Way's court as a satellite branch of its Seattle location. The service doesn't cost the city.

"The beauty of this is, if nobody uses it, it won't cost us any money and if they do use it, it won't cost us any money," said Judge David Larson of the Federal Way Municipal Court.

When there is a need for its services, and when the Federal Way court has room available, staff from the King County Dispute Resolution Center travel to Federal Way. They meet with disputing parties and help them solve their problems in a way that both parties agree on. The process is known as mediation.

Mediation is voluntary. It's a way to solve civil disagreements without going in front of a judge. A mediator speaks with both parties to figure out what is upsetting each of them. The participants then propose solutions that will satisfy both parties. Because the participants, rather than a judge, identify a solution and the terms accompanying it, the program is often successful, Larson said.

"It's the only form of dispute resolution where the parties decide the outcome," he said.

Mediation is ideal for small business, consumer and contractor issues, or neighbor-to-neighbor disputes, said Patti Dudley, executive director for the non-profit King County Dispute Resolution Center. For example, neighbors who wish to settle a dispute over barking dogs or property could use the mediation room.

The idea for a dispute resolution program originated with Larson and former city intern Scott Pingel. Larson was appointed to judge in 2008. Through his work as a lawyer, he has seen parties come to understand each other better, and settle their problems, through conversation and mediation.

Participants must be willing to listen to the other party's concerns. They must also cooperate and compromise to be successful in the program.

"It's all about human decency," Larson said.

From the time he was appointed as a judge, Larson hoped to bring mediation to Federal Way. However, research revealed it would cost a hefty amount for the city to start its own center. It costs Bellevue and Vancouver each roughly $300,000 a year to run their own dispute resolution center. The price is too steep for Federal Way, Larson said.

The Federal Way Municipal Court invited the King County Resolution Center to operate its existing program out of Federal Way. The setup is unique to the South King County area, Larson said.

Participants are charged a fee to use mediation. The fee is structured as a sliding scale. It is based on the number of individuals in the party's household and the household's income level. Service costs between $20 and $300 for individuals. The service costs more if it's used by a business.

Though mediation has been available for some time in Federal Way, many residents are not aware of its existence or potential outcomes, Larson said.

"The biggest challenge is getting people aware of its benefits," he said.

Learn more

To participate in the dispute resolution program or to learn more, contact King County Dispute Resolution Center at (206) 443-9603 or visit www.kcdrc.org.

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