What to expect at a judicial settlement conference
Judicial settlement conferences can happen for a couple of different reasons. If your divorce is contested, oftentimes courts require that you have a judicial settlement conference before your trial, in an attempt to encourage the parties to settle on their own without the judge’s involvement. (If your divorce is contested, you may find there are a great many procedural road blocks in place designed to help facilitate settlement and keep your case out of court.) If your divorce is uncontested, on the other hand, you may find that, if it’s difficult for you and your husband to reach a compromise with respect to certain issues, your attorney may advise you to have a judicial settlement conference in an attempt to facilitate settlement rather than filing for divorce (which would be time consuming and expensive).
What is a judicial settlement conference?
A judicial settlement conference is just a regular settlement conference that is presided over by a judge. A settlement conference is when two opposing sides, with their attorneys, get together to discuss possible options for settlement in advance of trial. A settlement conference doesn’t always involve a judge, but judges do tend to yield better outcomes overall, and can encourage parties to settle by offering his (or her) opinion regarding what, if the case were to go to court, might happen.
In Virginia, anything that happens in settlement negotiations is inadmissible later in court, so it’s a safe space for the parties to discuss their issues, throw around ideas for solutions, and, ultimately, resolve their differences. Since you know what you say can’t be used against you in trial later, open and honest communication is facilitated, and that’s incredibly important.
Do I have to have a judicial settlement conference?
That all depends. In a contested case, you may have to have a judicial settlement conference before you can move forward with your trial. If that’s the case, then you must have a judicial settlement conference. Ask your attorney what the rules are in your area, and whether you’ll be required to have a judicial settlement conference before your trial date. If your case is uncontested, you don’t have to have a judicial settlement conference if you don’t want to. Often, judicial settlement conferences are really effective, which is why people choose to have them. If you’re not comfortable or don’t want to have one, though, you won’t have to. If your negotiations are going nowhere, though, it may be something to consider, especially if you want to avoid the extra expense and delay of a trial (which, of course, would probably require that you have a judicial settlement conference before your trial anyway).
Will my husband and I have to sit and negotiate together?
That all depends. There’s no hard and fast rule about how settlement conferences work. Most of the time, it depends on the parties themselves. (And, of course, most of the time, they would generally prefer NOT to be in the same room together.) I’ve been to settlement conferences where we’ve stayed in the same room, where we’ve sat in different rooms, and where we’ve done a combination approach. Most of the time, when a judge presides, he will make opening and closing remarks to husband and wife, with their attorneys, before negotiations begin, regardless of whether the parties will stay in the same room throughout the negotiations. Sometimes, too, the judge meets with the attorneys separately from the husband and wife, just to get an idea of the background information (beyond the briefs usually provided to him by the attorneys prior to the conference).
If you feel strongly one way or the other, speak up. Ask to be seated separately, or to sit together, if you think that will be more effective. Chances are good that your wishes can be accommodated (unless they are ridiculous or counterproductive).
What does the judge do? Will he be mean to me? Can he make a “ruling” at a judicial settlement conference?
The judge goes back and forth, trying to help facilitate settlement. He (or she) will listen to each side, and then relay information back to the other side. It’s easier for him to move freely if husband and wife are seated separately in different spaces, but I’ve also seen judges facilitate very effectively with both parties in the same room. Often, they’ll give their opinion regarding what might happen in court, or what they’d do if a particular issue came in front of them. It’s interesting and helpful, especially as you try to figure out whether you’re better off settling or taking an issue to court. He won’t be mean to you. He’s there to help. He wants you to reach a settlement that you feel good about. He’s not on your side, exactly; he’s a neutral third party. But he’s there to help, and it’s his goal to walk away with an agreement in place. He can’t make a ruling. He’s not on the bench. He can only make recommendations. Whether you take them or not is entirely up to you.
How much does a judicial settlement cost?
It sounds expensive. Judicial settlement conferences are a little pricy, but certainly far, far less pricy than going to trial. You pay for the judge’s time, which is an hourly fee, and then your attorney’s hourly fee on top of it. Judicial settlement conferences often last between 2 and 8 hours; usually, though, they don’t span longer than the course of a single day. What happens if we don’t settle? Well, you’re not any worse off than you were before you went to the judicial settlement conference. Any offers that you make in an attempt to settle the case aren’t admissible later on, if your case goes to trial, so you don’t have to worry that anything you said will be used against you later. You don’t have to settle; you just have to give settlement a good faith effort. In a lot of cases, settlement conferences are successful, but if yours isn’t, that’s okay. That doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily have to move forward with a full fledged divorce trial later. It could just be that it’ll take you guys a little bit longer to reach your agreement. Don’t worry too much about it; chances are good you’ll have another opportunity to settle a little later on. All in all, settlement conferences are great. It’s really helpful to get both parties in the same room, and give them a chance to talk through some of their issues. Face to face, many people are less adversarial, and more willing to just get it done. You’ve got some skin in the game, too, since you’re paying your respective attorneys to be there with you, so that doesn’t hurt. For more information about using a judicial settlement conference to settle your case, or to schedule an appointment with one of our licensed and experienced Virginia divorce and custody attorneys, give our office a call at (757) 425-5200.