As COVID-19 continues to have a significant impact on families in North Carolina, the Wake County Family Court has taken steps to provide a safe alternative dispute resolution option for parties. In an effort to promote resolutions in family law cases while we all wait for restrictions to be lifted and the Courts to re-open, the Wake County Family Court is currently offering parties the option to participate in judicial settlement conferences for all issues, including child custody, child support, spousal support, and equitable distribution.
Similar to mediation, judicial settlement conferences are an alternative dispute resolution option that can be effective in family law cases. Judicial settlement conferences improve the efficiency of the court system and typically promote better outcomes for both parties. Specifically, judicial settlement conferences allow each party, with the assistance of their attorney, the opportunity to express their position in the case to a neutral third-party settlement judge. As the settlement judge hears from both parties, the judge can facilitate communication between the parties in a productive manner and assist them in reaching an agreement. These conferences can take place via WebEx and there are no court costs for participating in the program. There are numerous benefits to participating in a judicial settlement conference, including:
· Resolving the issues in your case without the necessity of a full hearing and without having to wait until the Court re-opens;
· Avoiding the back-log in cases the Court will inevitably have with upon its re-opening;
· Providing both parties with an opportunity to talk with a family court judge in a confidential manner, instead of as a matter of public record during a full hearing on the merits of their case;
· Providing both parties with an opportunity to hear from a Wake County judge about their experience with similar cases, giving both parties’ insight as to how a full hearing could be decided;
· Providing both parties with a more cost-efficient way to negotiate a resolution to their case; and
· Allowing parties to have control over the resolution of their case and providing them with the opportunity to reach a result that is better tailored to fit their family’s specific needs.
In addition, if the parties participate in a judicial settlement conference, they do not have to be concerned about what facts are shared with the settlement judge, as the settlement judge will not be the same judge who will preside over their case in the event they do not settle. In addition, anything shared with the settlement judge is confidential. This allows both parties the freedom to fully participate in the judicial settlement conference without concern that what they share with the settlement judge could be used against them in court.
As we all continue to navigate our new “normal” with COVID-19, judicial settlement conferences offer parties with on-going family law litigation a safe and efficient way to resolve their case without having to wait for the Courts to re-open.