Once proceedings have been filed in court, and where the parties agree, a judicial settlement conference may be convened.
A judicial settlement conference is a without prejudice meeting, facilitated and chaired by a Judge. The Judge essentially attempts to facilitate an out-of-court settlement of the dispute at this conference. Parties are normally represented by their lawyers.
In such conferences, Judges do not give legal advice or make any decisions about the merits of the case. They are however free to help the parties to see the weaknesses and strengths in their respective cases and to help parties work through any differences.
A judicial settlement conference will normally take half a day and is therefore shorter that a mediation, which will normally take one day. Also, it is held in the court itself rather than in private rooms which the parties arrange.
It is normal for a memorandum to be filed prior to a judicial settlement conference setting out key factors such as a summary of the issues involved and the content of any settlement discussions to date.
Because it is a without prejudice process, anything that is said by any party during a settlement conference cannot be used at any later point in time against them. The purpose of this characteristic of a without prejudice meeting is that it is designed to encourage free dialogue and willing concessions, where that is appropriate.
Where an agreement is reached, lawyers will normally advise their clients that agreement is drafted and signed there and then. Whilst the parties will be unable to discuss what has taken place in the mediation or to use what is said in the mediation in a later court case, the settlement agreement itself is fully binding and can be sued on like any other contract in the event it is breached.
The benefit of a judicial settlement conference from a client’s point of view is the ability to participate in a negotiation leading to an outcome, rather than taking the risk of dealing with the uncertainty of that outcome being imposed by a court decision. Other benefits include a reduction in costs and outcomes are being reached sooner than waiting for a trial and a decision.