In China, neighbors elect a community mediator to settle disputes and avoid problems landing in court.

Many countries are ahead of the United States in promoting compromise and understanding between people instead of litigation, Bonnie P. Castrey, newly elected president of the international Society of Professionals in Dispute Resolution said Friday.Castrey is visiting Utah to assist Norma F. Crossley, local society president, in organizing programs in Utah's 3rd District Court that offer mediation to divorcing couples.

A recent Dan Jones poll for the Commission of Justice in the 21st Century indicates that 87 percent of Utahns favor alternatives to the court system.

Castrey commends the justice commission, made of judges, attorneys, educators and lawmakers, for aggressively promoting mediation.

Simply put, mediation involves an impartial, trained "referee" who oversees resolution of problems in a setting outside of court.

Arbitration also takes place outside a courtroom, but the procedure is more formal. Witnesses are sworn in, testify and are cross-examined. Arbitrators frequently are retired judges.

In mediation and arbitration, parties may agree to make the resolution legally binding.

Utahns are forward-thinking and preparing for the excruciating demands on the justice system in the next decade. "We no longer live in a society where you can move if you don't get along with your neighbor. There aren't that many frontiers left," said Castrey.

"In the 21st century, we should be teaching our children how to mediate their problems, so when they become adults, they will favor compromise to suing."

In the next 10 years, as Utah's population becomes more diversified, Utahns will be faced with increasing conflicts between different racial and ethnic groups, Castrey said.

"Native Americans, Polynesians and Asians have used forms of mediation for centuries. It's not a foreign process to them. Conflicts with these communities can best be resolved with informal compromise."

Mediation is a booming trend crossing all aspects of modern society - business, medical malpractice, real estate, labor law, landlord-tenant relations and domestic relations. Several states have laws supporting mediation as a first consideration - before a case can be taken to court.

Compromise outside the courtroom battleground is particularly effective in domestic cases because couples are more likely to amicably follow a decision they have made together rather than a decision imposed on them, said Castrey.

She is enthusiastic about the Utah program initiated by Crossley for divorcing couples with children.

Last week, Crossley met with 25 people who had filed for divorce in Salt Lake's 3rd District Court to explain an alternative to the adversarial process.

"Children in divorce suffer the most trauma because their parents are fighting each other for custody. Mediation saves the emotional battles which are sometimes accented by battling lawyers. Mediation promotes a win-win philosophy. The needs and interests of both parties are taken into consideration rather than proving right or wrong," said Crossley.

After a couple has reached an understanding, an attorney is brought into the process, submitting the stipulation as a binding court document.

Utah's Society of Professionals in Dispute Resolution chapter phone is: 295-1791.