What is a settlement conference: Why are settlement conferences required?

Pursuing a lawsuit for discovery, trial, hearing, and continuous retention can be tiring, expensive, time-consuming, and most of all stressful. Besides, many times not the plaintiff or defendant knows where the case will move once it goes before the jury. This confusion and surging uncertainty motivate the parties to come up with a compromising solution outside the court that benefits them instead of leaving the verdict on chance.

When this happens, a settlement conference is scheduled by the lawyers of both parties. What it is a settlement conference and how it works is defined briefly in the next part of the article.

What is a settlement conference?

A settlement on a case can be achieved soon after the case is heard by the jury if the associated facts and figures are clear or it can be obtained after the discovery which often concludes the case. When there’s a discovery involved, that means enough evidence is gathered which is sufficient to conclude the case. And with it, both parties get a better sense of where the case could move.

But this is not the case every time. Most of the cases do not reach an agreement or settlement until the trial date. This is why states allow participants of such cases to participate in a settlement conference.

A settlement conference is a less formal process and takes less time to resolve a case than a lawsuit or trial. A settlement conference is held either in the conference room or in the judge’s chamber under the control of a jury.

The parties are represented by their attorneys in a settlement conference and if a company is involved in a lawsuit, then someone from the company will attend the conference on its behalf.

The procedure of a settlement conference

Both the parties in a settlement conference will provide a brief background about the dispute to the judge so they can help in resolving the case. The judge will then meet the attorneys of the parties separately and listen to their part of the case. This section of the settlement conference is not always attended by the parties themselves.

Once the judge finishes listening to both attorneys from each side, the judge asks the plaintiffs and defendants to present their part separately. During the meeting, the judge will also offer some suggestions and conclusions to both parties while trying to make them settle on an intermediate position and propose recommendations.

However, the judge cannot enforce the verdict on involved parties or cannot pressurize them to agree against their will. If the parties cannot reach a settlement, the case may be sent back for a trial.

On the other hand, if the parties reach an agreement, attorneys from both sides will prepare a document together that contributes to a settlement. The parties sign the document and after reviewing it the case will be dismissed. 

Common examples in a settlement conference

Probably the most common situation and example in a settlement conference is a personal injury case. Where the plaintiff (the sufferer usually) and a defendant (at-fault driver or an insurance company) try to reach a compensation amount against the damages and injuries the victim had suffered. The amount would be justified if the plaintiff has all the evidence and proof of damage plus the cost that he bore in the treatment. Although parties can offer and counteroffer before they actually reach a settlement in front of the judge that suits their interest. 

A settlement conference is best used in divorce cases either resolving alimony issues, child custody, or resolving the divorce issues. The separate meetings with parties allow them to disclose the private matters that they don’t want to disclose in front of the public while pursuing a trial in open court.

There are a few aspects in a divorce case that spouses do not agree with but most of the time it may take less time to reach a settlement.

Purpose of a settlement conference

The main purpose of a settlement conference is to save the cost and time of both the parties and the court by encouraging them to reach an out-of-court settlement and avoid going for a trial.

Other than this, settlement conferences are also used in order to find out the evidence used by the other party in the trial and the documents to testify the claim. By doing this the other party will comprehend how prepared the other party is and gauge the authenticity of the evidence that gives the indication of how the judge in the settlement conference is going to settle the case. Plus, most likely they get the possibility of winning or losing the settlement.

Who manages the settlement conference?

The settlement conference is conducted by the provincial court judge. However, if the judge couldn’t reach the settlement in a lawsuit, then a trial judge will hear the case who will not be the same who heard the case at a settlement conference.

Why are settlement conferences required?

Settlement conferences are good to settle small claims issues and lawsuits that don’t require open court hearings or trial dates. Except for the cases where the motor vehicle accidents caused property damage.

Settlement conferences are always held before the trial of a lawsuit. Once it is requested, the small claim registry will set up a date for the hearing and notify the parties to make their appearances.

However, if the issue entails the damages after a personal injury, the registry will not set the date unless the claimant submits;

A claimant is obligated to serve the copies within 14 days of filing the lawsuit. According to the Small Claim Rule 7 (9), the certificate of readiness must be presented within the 6 months of filing the claim notice. If the claimant needs more time to serve the certificate, he or she can request the registrar for additional time.

Who should attend the settlement conference

The parties involved such as claimants/plaintiffs, defendants, and any other involved third party must attend the settlement conference. But if there’s a defendant involved in a motor vehicle accident, there’s an exception for them like if they don’t want to attend the conference, but only if the defendant agrees and shows responsibility by admitting the fault so they will be represented by a person appointed by ICBC. Rule 17 (20) of the Small claim says that a party can be represented by a lawyer as well.

Does a settlement conference occur if a party doesn’t appear?

It can severely affect a defendant if they do not appear at the settlement conference. A judge may settle the agreement in the favor of the plaintiff with the compensation he may be seeking. For instance, if the plaintiff has a debt on the defendant and the defendant did not appear at the conference, then the judge may order the defendant to pay the debt on a certain date. 

The same goes for the plaintiff who is asking for property, custody, compensation amount, or any other compensation against their damages. If the defendant does not attend, the judge will make an order in the favor of the plaintiff and dismiss the case.

Options to consider after a settlement conference

After the arguments and personal meetings between lawyers from both sides and the judge, if the case reaches a settlement, then a judge would immediately issue an order listing down the terms of the settlement. For instance, if the defendant agrees to pay $1000 to the plaintiff in a personal injury case, a judge will issue an order obligating the defendant to pay $1000 to the plaintiff.  The order would also suggest the terms of payment and some consideration for the plaintiff to see if the defendant does not follow the terms and return the money.

On the other hand, if at the end of a settlement conference, the parties do not settle, the judge would order a trial. Additionally, the judge will possibly order one party to permit the other party to copy and inspect the documents if they haven’t shared them already. This step will be helpful especially in the cases where one party did not bring the important or required documents to the settlement conference.

Also, if the claim entails property damage compensation, a judge may order the party to allow the other party to check and analyze damages.

At the end of the trial, the judge will dismiss the case if there isn’t sufficient evidence to continue the trial. The judge has the discretion according to Rule 7 (14) to decide the case based on the reasonable defense or claim and make the decision in the favor of either the defendant or plaintiff.

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