Sometimes in a legal dispute, it's better for parties to come to an agreement rather than taking the dispute all the way to trial, which might take years to resolve. Courts appoint mediators to oversee the process of reaching such an agreement. Mediators are neutral facilitators who help opposing parties look at the strengths and weaknesses of their arguments, identify common interests and solve the problem together. Once an agreement is reached and signed by the judge, it becomes binding. The agreement has the same legal significance as if a judge had ruled on the case and issued a judgment.
In general, a mediator should have a good moral character and be able to facilitate conversations without taking sides. Each state court determines the qualifications for certification as a court-appointed mediator. States differ in specific qualifications, but some general similarities exist among the requirements.
Many court-appointed mediators, especially for trial courts, must be licensed lawyers in good standing with their state bar. Candidates must have a J.D. degree from an accredited law school; have passed the state's bar exam; and keep up with attorney fees and state taxes. Some states will accept mediators with a degree in their specialization rather than a law degree. For example, a family court mediator in Florida may have a master's degree or Ph.D. in social work or behavior sciences instead of a law degree. Some state courts, such as Virginia, only require a bachelor's degree for any mediation, while other state courts allow bachelor's degrees only for lower-level mediators, such as those in District Court.
Most states require certified court mediators to have undergone mediation training. For example, North Carolina requires any mediator to have 40 hours of trial court mediation training and to have observed two mediated settlement conferences. In Virginia, mediators must have 20 hours of basic mediation training, along with two mediation observations and three co-mediations. More specialized mediators, such as those in family court, require an additional 20 hours of training in their specialization.
Some states allow relevant work experience to serve as a substitute for another mediation requirement. For example, California's Superior Court in Tulare County allows mediator candidates to show alternative education, training and skills that closely match its training and education requirements. In Virginia, applicants can request a waiver of the education requirement by describing similar life and work experience, along with submitting two letters of recommendation regarding their communication skills.
Once a person has fulfilled a state's requirements to be certified as a mediator, he must apply for certification. Applications typically require proof of education and training, and verification of attorney licensing, if required. Candidates may also be required to sign a mediation agreement. Some courts also require that mediators take a refresher continuing education course every year to maintain their certification.