The term "private courts" refers to mediation or arbitration agencies that are used in legal disputes in place of civil courts. Private courts usually are used because the parties involved in a conflict wish to avoid a public trial and want to resolve their issue in a more timely fashion. Disputes that are often settled in private courts include family law issues, such as divorce, alimony, custody, and child support; business conflicts; tenant-landlord issues; or questions of employment law. Decisions reached in a private court are not necessarily binding — if a resolution cannot be reached that satisfies both sides, a civil lawsuit can then be pursued.
Mediation is one of the most common forms of conflict resolution practiced in private courts. It offers non-adversarial dispute resolution in which a neutral third party provides assistance in settling the conflict by keeping the interest of both parties in mind. The mediator typically helps the parties find a workable solution for themselves, instead of merely rendering a decision like a judge would in a civil case. If such a resolution can be achieved, the parties often will then sign a settlement agreement, which is considered to be binding. Mediation is often used in private courts in cases of divorce, and can help settle questions of custody, visitation rights, and how to divide common property.
A private court may also utilize arbitration to settle disputes. As a process, arbitration is similar to civil court proceedings — the arbitrator listens to arguments and evidence from both parties before making a decision that is binding. Prior to beginning arbitration, the parties involved must sign a contract that identifies what will be decided and who will serve as the arbitrator. Arbitration in private courts is often used because the parties wish to avoid the time and cost involved in a civil lawsuit. In labor and business disputes, arbitration is usually the preferred method of resolution.
Since mediation requires a certain degree of cooperation between parties, it usually is best for conflicts that have not become hostile. On the other hand, arbitration is often the best means of resolution between acrimonious parties, because the arbitrator resolves the situation objectively. In some cases, arbitration is even compulsory, such as disputes involving unions and management.
Lawyers are not necessary in private courts, but many individuals choose to seek the advice of an attorney before entering mediation or arbitration. Both processes are usually administered by independent agencies, but the fees involved are generally less expensive than civil court costs and private court schedules usually allow for more timely conflict resolution. Usually, the nature of the dispute and the relationship between the involved parties will determine whether private courts are a viable option to resolve a conflict.