Let consumers and businesses settle disputes with arbitration, official urges

April 20, 1994|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Sun Staff Writer

When Stephen Hannan became the county's consumer affairs administrator seven years ago, he "wasn't much on arbitration programs."

Since then, he has become a believer. So much so that this week he asked the County Council to amend the county's consumer protection law to let consumers and businesses submit their disputes to binding arbitration.

Currently, the only recourse consumers and businesses have if they are unable to resolve their differences is to take their case to small-claims court.

If the council approves Mr. Hannan's request at its legislative session May 2, as it is expected to do, arbitration would become a voluntary option through a program that would be administered by the consumer affairs office.

Mr. Hannan would like it to become the preferred option.

"I hope binding arbitration would be the route taken rather than small-claims court," he said.

Arbitrators, who are "trained volunteers from all walks of life," would resolve disputes over facts only, Mr. Hannan. A typical dispute might center on whether a product was delivered on the day it was promised. Complaints about unfair or deceptive trade practices still would go to the courts, Mr. Hannan said.

Even so, he said, "we've seen an increase in factual disputes" in the last few years. He estimated that 50 to 60 cases a year would go to arbitration.

"One big factor is that neither party [to the dispute] needs to bring an attorney," Mr. Hannan said. "And it is done at a specific time convenient to both parties. You're not sitting in small-claims court all day" waiting for the case to be called.

It takes six to eight weeks just to get on the small-claims court docket, Mr. Hannan said. Binding arbitration can be completed within a month, he said.

Volunteer arbitrators would be trained by the state attorney general's office. Some already are working in the county's new conflict resolution and mediation center, and more are expected if the arbitration program is approved, Mr. Hannan said.

Mr. Hannan expects to pay for the program out of his existing budget.

"The office is fairly automated," he said, and the only costs would be administrative -- scheduling appointments, typing decisions and paying mileage costs of volunteers.

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