What it is:
Arbitration is a process in which impartial parties (arbitrators) help disagreeing parties resolve a dispute. Contracts, particularly financial ones, with disputes often go to arbitration.
How it works (Example):
In the financial world, arbitration sometimes begins with filing a statement of claim with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA). The claim describes who is involved, the nature of the problem, evidence related to the dispute, and the amount of the claim. (The arbitration process is simplified for claims below $25,000 and often does not require in-person meetings.)
Once the arbitration panel is assembled and the parties involved formally agree to abide by the panel's decision, the claimant pays for the arbitration fees and the arbitration begins. Arbitrators are usually very knowledgeable in the areas in which they arbitrate. It can take well over a year to complete the process, from filing to decision.
Why it Matters:
The idea behind arbitration is to avoid long and expensive litigation. The process is generally cheaper than litigation, and it allows individuals to represent themselves more easily (though they may have legal representation if they choose).
However, financial contracts including those related to brokerage accounts, credit cards, loans, some utility contracts, etc. often contain mandatory arbitration clauses whereby the arbitration board is populated with members of an association to which the counterparty belongs. Thus, bias toward one of the parties can be a problem. Also, it is very difficult to appeal an arbitration decision (as opposed to court decisions, which are appealed all the time).