By Laura Harrington

The Central Family Court has recently commenced a pilot scheme which sees the introduction of Settlement Conferences in family proceedings (both private and public law proceedings).  The scheme is already up and running in Cheshire and Merseyside and has been a success for the majority of cases which have opted into having a settlement conference.

What is a settlement conference?

It is a concept which has been taken and adapted from the Canadian legal system.  You only need to Google ‘settlement conferences’ and you will get many hits which show they are used in a number of countries across the world. In short, settlement conferences are hearings whereby the Judge takes a more ‘hands on’ role and encourages all parties involved to try and reach a settlement.

When does a settlement conference take place? Is is instead of an IRH?

All parties will be given the option to have a settlement conference. In order for a settlement conference to take place all parties must consent.  A settlement conference should be listed as soon as practicable. If it is not possible to reach an agreement the matter will be listed for IRH and or final hearing depending on the case.

Will all judges sitting in the CFC be able to offer settlement conferences?

His Honour Judge Tolson QC has indicated that only a limited number of judges will be able to conduct settlement conferences.

What happens if it is not possible to reach a settlement?

If the case does not reach a settlement, then the matter will be listed before a different judge for further hearings. Everything which had been discussed in the settlement conference will remain confidential and parties will not be able to rely upon it at any further hearing.

If it is not possible to settle the case at the first settlement conference the court may list a further settlement conference with the consent of all the parties.

How will it work practically?

At the hearing the local authority will be invited to set out the issues and parties’ positions. The Judge will then come down from the bench and speak to the parties individually. The Judge will explore how the issues can be resolved and try and get all parties to reach an agreed resolution (the judge would have read the majority of the papers and will steer the case to the resolution which he/she believes will be the outcome at the final hearing). The tape will be on during all the conversations and the judge will address parties directly rather than through their legal representative during these informal discussions.

The role of the legal representative during a conference is limited to only speaking on behalf of their client when all parties are present and advising the client outside of the court after discussions with the judge.