By Zhen Liu, Staff Writer
From unkempt lawns to endlessly barking dogs to loud music played at all hours of the night, there are plenty of reasons why you may be having issues with your neighbors. Especially in places like New Jersey, the most densely populated state in the U.S., when it comes to living in a community, it’s not always “love thy neighbor.” Some people don’t make great neighbors, and people don’t exactly get to choose who lives around them. For most people, whether they’re renting or owning houses, there comes a time when you have to handle disputes with neighbors.
There are certainly neighbor conflicts that do warrant going to court. For example, if the contractors working in your next-door neighbor’s apartment were to negligently break through your wall, destroying the wall itself, the carpet, and the television, there would be thousands of dollars of damages at stake. Initiating legal action might be the only realistic way by which to obtain reimbursement. But not all neighbor conflicts result in quantifiable, significant money damages. Plus, the time involved in meeting with an attorney and going to court, could be far more burdensome than whatever your neighbor was doing, and easily cost thousands of dollars, or time lost from work, or leisure activities.
In New Jersey, only a relatively small percentage of these – about 2% – ever reach a judge for a trial. A great many are resolved through various dispute resolution processes. In many cases, techniques other than trial may be more effective, efficient and meaningful to the participants. Mediation is often an easier way to solve neighbor disputes and conflicts, and it works particularly well in situations where the parties have an ongoing relationship that will exist after the dispute.
The mediation program is called Complementary Dispute Resolution (CDR). Almost every city and town in New Jersey has what are known as Community Disputes Resolution Committees (CDRC). This is a form of mediation consisting of a panel of township citizens specially trained in mediation techniques. The two or more sides go before the Committee, which then works with the group to develop a fair solution.
Mediation is a structured and confidential form of negotiation that provides you with a convenient, fair, and effective way to resolve disputes without filing a formal complaint. If your case is heard in court before a judge, you do not negotiate, and you do not decide what happens to your case. The judge must make a decision in accordance with the law.
In mediation, by contrast, you have significant control over the process. A court-appointed, trained mediator assists you and the person(s) with whom you are in conflict in negotiating a solution to your problem. It is a solution that both sides consider fair and reasonable. Mediation often results in a win-win outcome. Moreover, no one ever gets a police record.
What Are The Costs?
The Mediation Program is FREE. There are no court costs, and there is no payment to the mediators. Mediation is available to everyone who lives or works in a certain County.
Who Are The Mediators?
Mediators are concerned members of the community who have volunteered their time and talents to provide a free, effective, and timely method for settling disputes. They are required to complete an intensive training course and to participate in ongoing educational activities. All mediators must be approved by the New Jersey Court system.
How Does Mediation Work?
In order to maximize the likelihood of success, it is important that all sides cooperate with the mediator and understand some basic ground rules. The following points are important:
- Mediators do not decide who is right or wrong. They facilitate a discussion between the parties.
- The parties are expected to negotiate inGOOD FAITH. Both sides will be committed to reaching a mutually acceptable agreement.
- Each side will be given an equal chance to talk, but only one person may speak at a time.
- Name-calling, foul language, rowdy behavior, and threats will not be tolerated.
- Only individuals directly involved in the dispute are allowed to be present at mediation sessions. Mediators are prohibited from discussing the dispute with anyone not directly involved.
- Although not required for the purposes of mediation, evidence (e.g., receipts or photographs) may be submitted; and witnesses may appear so long as they contribute relevant information. Each party is responsible to arrange for the appearance of any witnesses.
- Attorneys may attend mediation sessions in an advisory capacity, but they are not allowed to actively participate.
- Mediation sessions are confidential. Disclosures and proposals made in an effort to resolve disputes cannot be used in any subsequent court proceeding concerning the matter.
What Are The Benefits?
Even when a case is not required to go to Complementary Dispute Resolution (CDR), the sides, with or without lawyers can choose to submit the dispute to the court’s existing programs.
Without sacrificing quality, court-sponsored CDR programs offer many benefits, including: a streamlined process; greater confidentiality; direct communication and understanding among the parties about the essential issues on each side of the dispute; participation in the resolution of their case; preservation of ongoing party relations; savings in trial expenses; decreased psychological and emotional costs.
Agreement Or No Agreement?
If an agreement is reached, the mediator will put it in writing. Each side will sign the agreement and receive a copy. If no agreement is reached or if an agreement is subsequently broken, the complaining party can pursue a formal action in Municipal Court.
New Jersey Courts Civil CDR Program Information Center
Staff Writer Zhen Liu is a recent graduate from Seton Hall Law School, where she was a member of the Asian Pacific American Lawyers Association. She specializes in Family Law and serves as research assistant to associate reporters of The American Law Institute.