What is an Early Settlement Panel?
Divorces take on many different shapes and sizes, and range in legal issues and personality types. Each divorce is unique, but even the most unique divorces still have room for resolution, and do not require a trial. If you have ever experienced a family law dispute through the county family courts, then you have probably heard a judge or two state that it is in the spouses’ best interests to attempt settlement.
The thought process behind encouraging settlement is that the spouses have control over tailoring a settlement that works for the both of them rather than having one person (the judge) decide the entire case. One never knows how a judge will weigh the evidence presented at trial, so there exists an innate risk with trial.
Thus, the New Jersey Family Courts mandate that all dissolution cases (unsettled divorces) participate in an activity called the Early Settlement Panel. The panel typically consists of two family law attorneys that volunteer their time listening to the financial disputes between the parties. Then they render a professional recommendation for settlement. The benefit of this process is that the divorcing spouses have a settlement recommendation from neutral experienced attorneys that render their recommendation based upon the law and practical experience.
New Jersey Court Rule 5:5-5 states:
Participation in Early Settlement Programs All vicinages shall establish an Early Settlement Program (ESP), in conjunction with the County Bar Associations, and the Presiding Judges, or designee, shall refer appropriate cases including post-judgment applications to the program based upon review of the pleadings and case information statements submitted by the parties. Parties to cases that have been so referred shall participate in the program as scheduled. The failure of a party to participate in the program or to provide a case information statement or such other required information may result in the assessment of counsel fees and/or dismissal of the non-cooperating party’s pleadings. Not later than five days prior to the scheduled panel session, each party shall be required to provide a submission to the ESP coordinator in the county of venue, with a copy to the designated panelists, if known.
If both spouses agree with the recommendation, then they, or their attorneys, can put it in writing as a marital settlement agreement. If one or both spouses do not agree with the recommendation, then litigation moves forward, and the spouses will be ordered to participate in mandatory economic mediation.