Are settlement conferences the future of family law?

Settlement conferences originated in Canada as an innovative and less adversarial model for reaching decisions in public and private family law cases. The Ministry of Justice has been running a two year pilot from 2016 to 2018, to understand how settlement conferences might successfully operate in the family courts of England and Wales.

In August 2016, former President of the Family Division, Sir James Munby, said, “…[the] ethos of the settlement conference is not to pressure parties to settle but to explore whether the candour and confidentiality of the process can help to reach common ground.”

Settlement conferences are structured to be a voluntary, transparent and non-pressurised environment to enable parties to discuss their concerns, issues and proposals. However, they also carry a “non-prescriptive” approach to enable the judge overseeing the conference with a degree of flexibility to allow him/her to facilitate an agreed outcome.

The Ministry’s review of the settlement conference pilot scheme can be found here.

Some 324 settlement conferences in courts across ten Designated Family Judge (DFJ) areas took place during the two-year evaluation period from 2016 to 2018. Over a third (36%) of public law and almost half (45%) of private law settlement conferences led to a resolution of the dispute, whilst most settlement conferences led to a narrowing of at least some of the issues.

The benefits identified were based on providing a less formal setting that encouraged open dialogue, which enabled parties to collaborate and reach a consensual agreement. Being able to speak directly to the judge was seen by many interviewees as empowering for parents and helped them engage with the decisions made for their children. Nonetheless, concerns were raised by interviewees across all professional groups and some judges in relation to the implicit imbalance of power in a settlement conference, and the risk that parents may feel pressured by the authority of the judge to make an agreement they were not comfortable with. Similar concerns were raised about whether parents had sufficient understanding of what settlement conferences are and their potential outcome.

If you would like to discuss securing an order for contact with your child, or other issues relating to children following the breakdown of a relationship, contact one of our expert family solicitors today on 01234 88977  or 0207 177 9777 for a free consultation. Serving rural and central Bedford, together with the City of London, our lawyers can help you with all your family law matters.

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