Maricopa County has a leading alternative dispute resolution (ADR) program — the “Settlement Conference.” This ADR settlement program is made available in family law cases, other civil cases, and probate cases within the county.
The parties may be referred to a Settlement Conference in advance of any trial, in an attempt to settle their remaining disputed issues. A commissioner or judge pro tempore (a temporary judge) is appointed to preside over the conference and offer a legal opinion on the likelihood of success on each party’s position. The judge’s non-binding advisory opinion is often a much-needed “wake up” call on the legal merits of each party’s case. Rest assured, the judge pro tempore is never the same judge assigned to the family law case.
In preparation for the conference, the parties each submit a “Settlement Memorandum” advising the judge of their respective legal positions. At the conference, which may take two hours or more to conduct, the parties with their attorneys appear before the judge. Each party should be fully prepared to discuss all previous negotiations and the results of those negotiations, the consequences of a trial if settlement isn’t forthcoming, the details of their finances, and any other unresolved issues.
The ADR conference is typically conducted a month or two in advance of the trial date. If the conference results in a complete settlement of all the issues, then the trial date is vacated — it is no longer necessary. When a partial settlement is achieved, the case will proceed to trial on the remaining issues. Of course, if no further settlement is reached, the case also proceeds to trial.
This conference is often the last formal opportunity the attorneys will have to broker a settlement in advance of trial. In our experience, these Settlement Conferences are very useful in resolving difficult cases. They allow a fresh view, through the eyes of the judge, on the legal issues in the case. This ADR process often leads to breakthroughs in the negotiations, even when further settlement was believed to be an impossibility.