Settlement conferences should not be overlooked in family court proceedings
More and more, courts are encouraging litigants in family matters to consider resolving their differences without going to trial. “Alternative dispute resolution” is the term used to describe a variety of less confrontational and potentially less costly options for coming to terms on matters of separation, parenting time and child maintenance. One of those options is the settlement conference.
The settlement conference is a non-binding effort to try to resolve a family court matter once court proceedings have begun.
At the settlement conference, a judge will work mostly as a mediator. It will be held in a board room instead of a court room. The judge will want to hear from the parties directly. Unlike at a trial, the lawyers at a settlement conference play a secondary role.
The judge will listen to both parties and give his or her opinion of how the matter should be resolved. But there is no decision made. The judge will simply explain what the likely result could be at trial. And, the judge who does the settlement conference cannot preside at the trial. Because of this, no one has much to lose by participating in a settlement conference.
A settlement conference is an attempt at a compromise. Any issue can be raised at that time. That said, both parties should be realistic and not every grievance should be aired, only that which truly affects the children. Also, there must be an evidential foundation to any allegation made against a party, in other words proof. This is less so at a settlement conference than at trial. So, if it has to happen, it is best to iron out more tedious issues at the settlement conference.
At the settlement conference, the parties will make the decision either to settle or not settle. No one will be forced to resolve the matter. If the parties reach an agreement, then the matter is resolved on that day. However, if either party does not agree with what the other party wants or is not prepared to compromise or feels frustrated, the conference ends, the parties return to court and a trial date is set.
At trial, each party calls witnesses and the judge makes a ruling on the issues of custody, access and child maintenance. A trial is demanding on all parties involved. Each party must be prepared to testify in court and be cross examined by the other party’s lawyer. That is why it is often best to try to resolve the matter at a settlement conference.