What is settlement conference?
A settlement conference is a type of hearing that a judge conducts to help parties settle a lawsuit. It is scheduled either because all the courts in a county or one particular judge require a settlement conference before the case goes to trial, or because the parties and their lawyers ask the court to meet with them to help settle the case. Settlement conferences may be available: in civil cases, such as personal injury and contract disputes; in domestic relations cases, such as divorces and paternity suits; and in certain criminal cases. A settlement conference is usually held in the judge’s chambers or in private conference rooms. There is no court reporter in the conference, and persons who are not involved with the case may not attend.
What is the cost of a settlement conference?
The court charges the parties a fee for a settlement conference, though a party may apply to have the fee waived. In addition, the parties will most likely have to pay the lawyer for the time spent preparing for and attending the conference. The lawyer may also charge the client for any time spent after the settlement conference drafting any agreements that are needed to confirm what was agreed to at the conference.
How does a settlement conference get scheduled?
In the counties that require a settlement conference before a trial, the judge’s assistant contacts the lawyer to schedule a settlement conference. In the counties in which a settlement conference is requested by the parties or their lawyers, the lawyers usually contact the judge or judges who handle settlement conferences, and they coordinate their schedules to find a convenient date for everyone. This may occur anywhere from shortly after the case is filed up to a week or a month before the scheduled trial date.
Who attends a settlement conference?
Many counties have court rules that require that each party attend the conference with his or her lawyer. Most courts want the lawyer who will be the trial lawyer to be at the conference. In cases where one party is insured and the lawyer is hired by the insurance company, a representative with authority to settle the case must also attend. Some judges allow parties to be available by phone at the time of the conference, particularly if they are a far distance away from the court or are incapacitated. Each judge has a different policy about people attending the conference who are not parties or insurance adjusters involved in the case.
What is confidentiality in settlement conferences?
The law favors settlement of lawsuits. The rules of evidence in a trial do not allow the parties to tell the trial judge or jury about their settlement offers and demands. So, persons who participate in settlement discussions have to know and agree that they will not try to testify about settlement talks during a trial. Participants in settlement talks must agree that they will not discuss those talks later, unless the court allows it.
What happens in a settlement conference?
Each judge has his or her own style of conducting a settlement conference. Most judges want the parties or their lawyers to give the judge an idea of what the case is about and what the parties are arguing over before the settlement conference begins. Many judges will read this information before the conference and allow each side to tell the judge any secrets about his or her version of the facts and the law.
A judge may first meet with the lawyers on each side, to get background information on the law, the facts and the positions of the parties. Or a judge may meet with all of the lawyers and the parties first and allow each side to give a short presentation of their side of the case. Then the judge would talk separately with the parties and their lawyers. These discussions may go on for several hours, until the parties either reach an agreement or decide that they cannot settle the case that day.
If the parties and their lawyers agree on a settlement, the judge will usually have the parties and their lawyers prepare a memorandum, including the terms of the agreement. It is usually necessary for one or more of the lawyers to prepare a formal settlement agreement that gets circulated among the parties for everyone’s signature. The judge usually dismisses the lawsuit when all of the parties and their lawyers have signed the agreement.
If the case does not settle at the conference, the judge may do several things. The judge may decide that the parties and their lawyers should return later, perhaps after some other information has been gathered or when an important person in the settlement discussions will also be available to attend another conference. The parties may reach partial agreement and decide to limit the type or number of issues that will be argued about at trial. Or, the judge may agree with the parties and their lawyers that the case is unlikely to settle and schedule the case for a trial. In some counties, the same judge who presided over the settlement conference will continue as the trial judge. In other counties, the judge who presided over the settlement conference will under no circumstances serve as the trial judge.
Legal editor: Janay Haas, August 2009; updated August 2011.