Understand Different Mediation Processes in New Jersey Divorce Hearings
When utilizing divorce mediation, there are three main different mediation processes that you attend. They will usually go in the order that I’ll name them, but you may have more than one, so I’m just going to describe each one, even though you may have several of one or the other, but not all of them.
The three that you will have generally in a divorce hearing is going to be:
- Early Settlement Panel Hearing
- Economic Mediation
- Intensive Settlement Conference
All of these sessions will be confidential, so that is whatever you discuss does not make its way to a judge.
Early Settlement Panel
The Early Settlement Panel is usually going to be the first mediation session. It is a process scheduled through the courts. The family court will bring in two or three attorneys who meet confidentially. You will submit a statement for settlement to the panel before you meet. Then, you go into court on the day of the panel hearing. Usually, the panel will meet with the attorneys (if there are two attorneys on the case) first to discuss the issues and the need for resolution. Then they’ll usually bring the parties and the attorneys in and discuss the issues.
One thing to know about the Early Settlement Panel is they will not discuss custody issues because they’re just lawyers. They’re not capable of really making custody decisions. The Early Settlement Panel is a good first step in the settlement hearings that you’re going to have. It’s sponsored by the court, so you’re not paying for anything other than the lawyers that you may be bringing with you. It’s confidential.
A limitation of the Early Settlement Panel is that it’s usually not very long. You may be one of many, so you might be sitting in line. They’re not going to give you a significant amount of time unless they really think they’re making substantial progress, and even then, the time is going to be limited.
Another drawback, and this is the biggest problem I have with the Early Settlement Panel, is it will often empower one party and not necessarily appropriately, meaning if you met with ten different lawyers, you might get ten different opinions on something like alimony, for instance. You go into an Early Settlement Panel, and you’re going to have two lawyers, and you’re going to come out with an answer, and usually it’s going to favor one person’s position over another. It’s not common that it be split in the middle. As a result, that person comes out believing that that’s the law, or that’s what going to happen at trial, and it’s not necessarily accurate. It might actually be inaccurate, because again, different lawyers are going to give you different opinions. I’m not a big fan of the Early Settlement Panel for those reasons.
The the purpose behind it is to have two lawyers that come in that are independent, objective, and skilled in family law. They generally are going to be well versed in not only the law, but the judge that you have and the decisions that are common. They can step back and be objective, where usually the parties, as well as the lawyers, aren’t completely objective on any given issue.
After the Early Settlement Panel, you’ll usually go into Economic Mediation. Economic Mediation is where you and the other party will choose a mediator, usually an attorney, for the case. It’s not held in the courthouse. It’s actually going to usually be held at that lawyer’s office. You will be paying for the lawyer, whatever his or her hourly rate is, with the exception of two hours that are supposed to be included for the session itself. Generally the two hours will be one hour of their preparation time before you get there. They will also be reading the submission that you submit which will usually be similar to your Early Settlement Panel submissions. They’ll read it, and they’ll talk one on one with either the lawyers and the parties or everybody together.
Economic Mediation also will not deal with custody issues – it will only deal with the financing of your divorce. This session is a little bit better than the Early Settlement Panel in that you have as much time as you want. You can also schedule it on your own time. You’re not coming in when the court requires you to be there and sitting around waiting to be called. It starts when you get there, and you can spend as much time as you need. The drawback is that it’s going to cost more because if you already have two lawyers on the case, you’re going to now have a third, and it could just add a pressure that impacts settlement in ways that you didn’t really anticipate.
Intensive Settlement Conference
The last settlement hearing that you’ll have is called an Intensive Settlement Conference. This is the session type that you’ll usually have more than one of. Quite honestly the courts use them to sort of delay giving you a trial date. Intensive Settlement Conference is where you come in to the courthouse, and either you sit in a conference room, or you sit in a hallway at least as long as the judge is requiring you to be there. The judge on your case will usually be available to discuss your case issues with you. Sometimes it’s actually even a different judge that they bring in so that you can have settlement discussions without jeopardizing or prejudicing your issues.
The good and bad about the Intensive Settlement Conference –
The good: The Intensive Settlement Conference is good in that it’s usually at the latter part of your case. You’ve discussed these issues a number of times, you understand the issues, you understand everybody’s positions and how far apart you are, and it’s usually easier to bridge gaps by the time you get to an Intensive Settlement Conference.
The bad: The drawback to this conference is that it is intensive, hence why it’s given that name. You can be there all day sometimes, and you get frustrated, you get tired, you get hungry, and the judge is often encouraging you, if not coercing you in some ways, to settle your case. I’m not a big fan of the Intensive Settlement Conferences, because I think people settle more out of the coercion and pressure than they do because they’re ready to resolve their issues.