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A settlement conference is a private meeting held before a civil case proceeds to court to see if it is possible to reach an agreement about the matter without having to take it to court. If the parties at the conference cannot settle, the case will be referred to court and they will present it in front of a judge, and possibly a jury. Settlement conferences can be a useful legal tool for saving time and money while reaching an agreeable resolution to a legal dispute.
In some types of cases, a settlement conference is required before a case can be sent to court. In others, it may be recommended, or one of the parties may request it. At the conference, both parties are present, along with their attorneys. The judge also attends. Everyone presents their cases and arguments, and they attempt to reach an agreement, facilitated by the judge or a mediator. The judge may also offer critical feedback on the information presented, giving people an idea of how successful they will be if they choose to take the case to court.
The proceedings of the settlement conference are confidential. They are not recorded or reported and information from the conference cannot be used in court if the case is brought to court. This is designed to encourage people to work in good faith with each other to reach an agreement that will work for all parties. However, both sides may keep back information in case they need to take the case to court, as they do not want to give away all of their case and give the other side a chance to prepare.
Several settlements may be proposed and discussed over the course of the settlement conference and the proceeding can take several hours. If the parties find a settlement they like, they can finalize it and approve it, and the matter will be resolved. In situations where people cannot agree in the settlement conference and the situation appears intractable, the case will end up in court. In court, people will have to do their best to convince the judge of their side of the case, with the goal of either receiving damages or avoiding having to pay them, depending on which side someone is on.
Many legal systems are struggling with a high volume of civil cases, making it difficult to clear the court schedule. People may wait months for a spot on the schedule to open up. Using settlement conferences and mediation can help divert simple matters from the courtroom, keeping the courts clear for cases that need to be heard in court.