An article by WikiHow states:

Many people are familiar with responding to a lawsuit with a motion to compel arbitration. However, you can also file a petition to compel even when no lawsuit is pending.

I was researching this area of law and I came across a different (but overlapping) concept known as a declaratory judgement action:

A declaratory judgment is a binding judgment from a court defining the legal relationship between parties and their rights in a matter before the court. When there is uncertainty as to the legal obligations or rights between two parties, a declaratory judgment offers an immediate means to resolve this uncertainty.

What's the difference between the two types of fillings/lawsuits?

In what circumstances should each one be used?

2 Answers 2


A motion to compel means that the court orders a party to do something.

A declaratory judgment means that the court confirms some fact or legal position but without ordering anyone to do anything.


"The court orders Party A to disclose document X to Party B".


"The court declares that Party A is under an obligation to disclose document X to Party B".

A declaration is typically sought when two parties merely want to understand what their position is without actually entering into a dispute. For example, they disagree on what their obligations are under a contract, but there isn't actually a breach of contract which one party wants to sue the other for.

  • If one were to file a motion to compel arbitration before the counterparty actually initiates a lawsuit, in what way would that order take effect if there is no pending lawsuit?
    – S.O.S
    Dec 21, 2022 at 18:19

What's the difference between the two types of fillings/lawsuits?

This is an apples-to-oranges comparison. Proceedings to compel arbitration address the question of where to litigate a dispute. There a party seeks to enforce a method for dispute resolution that the counterparty is trying to elude. Declaratory action indicates a type of relief which has the form of preemptively outlining the parties' rights and obligations should an injury materialize in the future.

Although the parties could resort to arbitration for declaratory relief, typically arbitration is sought only after the injury has occurred. Arbitration for purposes of declaratory relief essentially amounts to asking the arbitrator to determine the "correct" and binding interpretation of a contract.

Note that the WikiHow resource to which you refer contains some mischaracterizations. One example is the assertion that "federal courts have a strong policy of favoring arbitration". A recent answer provides legal precedents clarifying that arbitration is to be enforced by virtue of being premised on some contract (or maybe some statute) rather than because of judicial preference. A policy preference for or against arbitration is within legislator's province, not something for courts to override by means of "policies".

Also the notion, stated in that article, that many people are familiar with responding to a complaint by moving to compel arbitration is irrelevant and highly doubtful.

The article would have been more productive if it warned that arbitration rulings are significantly harder to reverse than those from court proceedings. In part, that difference is because:

In what circumstances should each one be used?

For reasons stated in the preceding paragraph, arbitration entails a high risk of arbitrator's subjectivity (arbitrariness) and therefore should be avoided whenever possible. The easiest way to avoid it is by declining to sign agreements that establish arbitration as "alternative method for dispute resolution".

  • Thank you. I'm not sure I understand the response. The question is not about resorting to arbitration for declaratory relief. It's about asking the courts in a declaratory action whether they would enforce an arbitration agreement (when two parties dispute whether it is enforceable). The other option is to initiate proceedings to compel arbitration. In both cases, a party is asking the courts to enforce arbitration. But these are two different technical terms. The question is what is the difference between the two concepts? Or are they just two ways of saying the same thing?
    – S.O.S
    Dec 20, 2022 at 18:39
  • @S.O.S "asking the courts in a declaratory action whether they would enforce an arbitration agreement". That approach is oblique or futile because of the hypothetical nature that declaratory relief entails. If the injury already happened, the parties are past the point of asking the court what it would do (i.e., seeking declaratory relief) regarding an arbitration clause. If no injury has arisen yet, there is little-to-no value in asking the court where a hypothetical controversy would have to be litigated. Hence the answer on "are they just two ways of saying the same thing?" is no. Dec 20, 2022 at 21:14

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