A settlement conference is a way to settle a civil lawsuit before it goes to trial. It is usually performed by the judge who will try the case. However, these duties may be referred to a magistrate or court officer, particularly if the case will not be tried before a jury and the judge will be the sole arbiter.

It is becoming increasingly common for federal and state courts to order disputants to enter a settlement conference as a way to dispose of cases as expeditiously as possible. In some courts, however, judges simply recommended the procedure when they meet with counsel for their pretrial conferences.

The Process

At a settlement conference, the judge or court officer hears summaries of the facts, legal issues and evidence that will be presented at trial. He or she evaluates the merits of each side’s position and communicates those opinions to the counsel and disputants. He or she will then explain why they reached those conclusions and offer an opinion of how a jury would rule on the case. Then the judge tries to get the parties to compromise and reach a settlement.

Judges approach this settlement phase in different ways and with varying degrees of input from the parties. Some judges formulate their own solutions and attempt to persuade the parties to accept them. Others are more open to using mediation skills to facilitate communication between the parties and help them arrive at mutually agreeable resolutions.

Settlement Conference Caveat

Regardless of the extent to which a judge attempts to mediate resolution between litigants, experts caution that a settlement conference should not be confused with mediation. The process differs in two key ways:

Even though both processes are non-binding, the parties in a settlement conference do not have the same level of control over the outcome as they do have in mediation. The more congested the court, the more pressure a judge is likely to put on the parties to accept settlement. Thus, while such conferences are certainly a way to help parties settle their differences without committing the significant time and money associated with litigation, they are also effective tools for a busy court seeking to dispose of cases.

Judges are not mediators, and tend to differ from mediators in their ideas of what constitutes a fair and equitable settlement. Judges tend to advance solutions based on evidence, applicable law and consideration of the monetary issues in the case. They often persuade parties to accept less than either side wants in exchange for avoiding the risk and expense of a trial. Mediators are interested in helping the sides walk away with a creative solution that is not necessarily grounded in law and that takes into account their working relationship, as well as their emotional, professional and financial interests.

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