Arbitration: Definition, Types, and Real-Life Examples


Arbitration is a dispute resolution mechanism overseen by FINRA, offering a faster and cost-effective alternative to lawsuits. Learn about the key aspects of arbitration and how it works.

Arbitration definition – understanding the basics

Arbitration, in the realm of economics and finance, is a vital mechanism for resolving disputes between investors and brokers, or between brokers themselves. It operates under the jurisdiction of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), making it an integral part of the financial landscape.

Unlike mediation, where parties negotiate to reach a voluntary settlement, arbitration results in final and binding decisions. It offers a structured approach to conflict resolution, and the outcomes are legally enforceable, provided that all parties involved adhere to the terms.

How arbitration works

In practical terms, arbitration shares some similarities with a lawsuit but offers several advantages, such as reduced costs and time commitments for all parties involved. This section delves into the key aspects of how arbitration operates.

Benefits of arbitration

  • Arbitration could be preferable to a lawsuit due to the lower costs and time commitments for all parties involved.
  • Disputes involving less than $50,000 do not require in-person hearings, reducing the hassle and expense.
  • For disputes ranging from $50,000 to $100,000, an in-person hearing with a single arbitrator is the standard, ensuring a fair and streamlined process.

Arbitration serves as a viable option for resolving specific disputes between an investor or broker and a party registered with FINRA. The claim filed with FINRA details the alleged misconduct and the amount of money being sought in damages.

FINRA appoints a panel of three financial industry professionals to preside over the arbitration. To maintain objectivity, these professionals are not employed in the securities industry. However, if any party suspects bias or conflicts of interest among the arbitrators, they can request a change.

Arbitration hearings

Arbitration proceedings differ depending on the scale of the dispute. Here’s a breakdown of how the hearings are conducted:

  • For disputes involving less than $50,000, in-person hearings are not considered necessary. Instead, both parties submit written materials to a single arbitrator who decides the case based on the provided evidence.
  • For disputes ranging from $50,000 to $100,000, in-person hearings with a single arbitrator are the most common practice, ensuring a fair and efficient resolution process.
  • Disputes exceeding $100,000 often require in-person hearings with three arbitrators. A majority decision from the three-arbitrator panel (at least two individuals) is needed to reach a verdict. Arbitrators are not obliged to explain their decisions but do so in some cases.

Parties involved in arbitration have the flexibility to represent themselves, but they can also opt to hire an attorney for legal guidance. Arbitration panels tend to be less formalistic than the court system, making it feasible for investors to navigate the process, even without legal representation.

It’s essential for investors to be aware of the fees associated with filing for arbitration, as well as the time and travel expenses involved. These factors should be carefully considered before pursuing arbitration as an option.

Special considerations

Arbitration panels do not always award the full amount sought in a dispute. For instance, if an investor files a claim against their broker for $38,000, the panel may rule in favor of the investor but only award a portion of the requested amount, such as $10,000. The outcome depends on the evidence and arguments presented during the arbitration process.

It’s important to note that arbitration decisions are binding and generally not subject to appeal, except in very limited circumstances. In contrast, FINRA’s mediation process offers a non-binding alternative where both parties must agree to the settlement for it to be legally enforceable.

The Public Investors Arbitration Bar Association has raised concerns about the lack of diversity on FINRA’s arbitration panels and the organization’s safeguards against bias and conflicts of interest. The regulator, on the other hand, maintains that these criticisms are unfounded, particularly the focus on arbitrators’ age.

In the terms of service provided by most brokers, investors are required to agree to mandatory arbitration to settle potential disputes, rather than pursuing litigation in court. Since FINRA essentially has a near-monopoly on arbitration in the financial industry, the organization’s panels often represent the primary avenue for investors seeking redress.

Examples of arbitration cases

Understanding arbitration is best facilitated by examining real-life cases where this dispute resolution mechanism has been employed. Here are two examples of arbitration cases:

Case 1: Investor vs. Broker misconduct

In this scenario, an investor alleges misconduct on the part of their broker. The investor claims that the broker engaged in unauthorized trading, resulting in significant financial losses. As the investor seeks redress, they file a claim with FINRA, outlining the details of the alleged misconduct and the damages incurred.

FINRA appoints a panel of arbitrators to review the case. The arbitrators, who are experts in the financial industry, analyze the evidence and arguments presented by both the investor and the broker. They ultimately reach a binding decision, which may award the investor a portion of the requested damages, taking into account the evidence presented during the arbitration process.

Case 2: Broker vs. Broker dispute

In this instance, two brokers in the financial industry have a dispute over a business transaction gone awry. They both claim the other breached their agreement and caused financial harm. To resolve the dispute, they agree to arbitration through FINRA.

FINRA appoints a panel of arbitrators with expertise in the field. These arbitrators review the evidence and arguments presented by both brokers. They reach a final and binding decision, which may require one broker to compensate the other for the financial losses incurred due to the alleged breach of contract.

These examples highlight the versatility of arbitration in resolving various financial disputes, from investor-broker conflicts to inter-broker disagreements.

Benefits and drawbacks of arbitration

Arbitration offers both advantages and disadvantages, which are important to consider when choosing this dispute resolution method.

Pros of arbitration

  • Arbitration is generally quicker and less expensive than pursuing a lawsuit through the court system.
  • The process is often less formal, making it more accessible for parties representing themselves.
  • Arbitrators are typically experts in the relevant field, ensuring informed decisions.
  • Arbitration decisions are binding, providing finality and certainty in dispute resolution.

Cons of arbitration

  • Arbitration decisions are usually not subject to appeal, except in very limited circumstances.
  • The lack of transparency in the decision-making process can be a drawback for some parties.
  • Some critics argue that arbitration panels may lack diversity, potentially leading to biases in decision-making.


Arbitration in the field of economics and finance serves as a crucial mechanism for resolving disputes between investors and brokers or among brokers themselves. Its cost-effective and time-efficient nature makes it an attractive alternative to traditional lawsuits. Parties involved in arbitration should understand the process, the options for representation, and the binding nature of the decisions.

While arbitration is generally a straightforward and efficient method for resolving financial disputes, it’s important for investors to be aware of the associated costs and potential limitations on the awards granted. In cases where arbitration is not suitable or fails to deliver a satisfactory outcome, parties may explore other avenues for dispute resolution.

Frequently asked questions

What types of disputes can be resolved through arbitration?

Arbitration is commonly used to resolve disputes related to financial transactions, including investor-broker conflicts, breach of contract, unauthorized trading, and other financial misconduct. It is also employed to settle disputes between brokers themselves.

Is arbitration only applicable to financial industry disputes?

While arbitration is widely utilized in the financial sector, it is not limited to this industry. Arbitration can be employed in various fields, including commercial disputes, labor and employment issues, and consumer disputes. The rules and procedures may differ based on the specific domain.

Are arbitration decisions always final and binding?

In most cases, arbitration decisions are indeed final and binding. However, there are very limited circumstances where decisions may be subject to appeal, typically on grounds of procedural irregularities or bias. Parties involved should be aware of the finality of arbitration decisions.

What role does FINRA play in the arbitration process?

FINRA, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, oversees and administers arbitration in the financial industry. It plays a pivotal role in appointing panels of arbitrators, ensuring a fair and impartial process, and maintaining standards in arbitration cases related to the financial sector.

Can individuals represent themselves in an arbitration case, or is legal representation necessary?

Individuals involved in arbitration cases have the flexibility to represent themselves, and many choose to do so, especially in cases involving smaller disputes. Legal representation is also an option, and it can be particularly beneficial in complex cases or when parties prefer professional guidance.

What are the costs associated with arbitration, and how are they typically allocated?

The costs of arbitration can vary, and they typically include filing fees, administrative expenses, arbitrator fees, and legal representation fees if applicable. The allocation of costs often depends on the specific arbitration agreement or the rules of the arbitration provider, and it can be a crucial factor for parties to consider before pursuing arbitration.

Key takeaways

  • Arbitration is a dispute resolution mechanism in the financial industry overseen by FINRA, offering final and binding decisions.
  • Arbitration can be a cost-effective and time-efficient alternative to lawsuits, making it preferable for many parties.
  • The arbitration process varies depending on the scale of the dispute, with different rules for in-person hearings.
  • Parties can choose to represent themselves in arbitration, although legal representation is also an option.
  • Arbitration decisions are typically binding and not subject to appeal, except in very limited circumstances.
View article sources
  1. Arbitration – ICC – International Chamber of Commerce
  2. The Arbitration Agreement – unctad
  3. Arbitration – NJ Courts(.gov)