A settlement conference is a type of hearing that a judge conducts to help parties settle a lawsuit. A court may order a settlement conference, or the parties may request one. Settlement conferences may be available in a variety of cases. A settlement conference usually takes place in the judge’s chambers or in a conference room. There is no court reporter in the conference. And, in most instances, persons who are not involved with the case may not attend.
The court charges the parties a fee for a settlement conference, though a party may apply to have the fee waived. The parties will also likely have to pay the lawyers. The lawyer may charge the client for time spent on work after the settlement conference. That work may include creating documents that confirm the parties’ agreement.
When a court requires a settlement conference, the judge’s assistant will contact the lawyer to schedule the conference. When the parties request a settlement conference, the lawyers contact the judge to schedule the conference.
Many courts have rules that order 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. When an insurance company hires one of the lawyers, a representative from the insurance company must also attend. Some judges allow parties to be attend via phone, particularly if they are a far from the court or incapacitated.
The law favors settlement of lawsuits. The parties may not tell the trial judge or jury about their settlement offers and demands. People must agree that they will not testify about settlement conversations at trial.
Most judges want the parties to give some background of the case in writing before the conference begins. Judges read this information before the conference and allow each side to tell the judge his or her view of the facts and the law.
A judge may first meet with the lawyers on each side. Or, a judge may meet with the lawyers and the parties together. Then the judge will talk separately with the parties and their lawyers. The lawyers will explain the law, the facts, and the positions of the parties. Discussions may go on for several hours. The parties either reach an agreement or decide that they cannot settle the case that day.
Settlement conferences help each side lower their risk of losing the case at trial. Usually, there are strengths and weaknesses on both sides of any given case. If a party is open-minded and flexible, the party may reach an acceptable settlement that eliminates the risk of losing the case after a trial. A settlement is much more likely if both parties’ participation in the conference is reasonable and constructive.
The judge may decide that the parties and their lawyers should return later. The parties may reach partial agreement and limit the number of issues that they will argue 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 not serve as the trial judge.