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Settlement conferences pilot evaluation published

Participants see potential for settlement conferences to be ‘positive and less adversarial way’ to resolve family cases

Participants in the settlement conferences pilot have acknowledged their potential to be a positive and less adversarial way to reach decisions in family law cases. However, an evaluation of the implementation and delivery of the family court settlement conferences pilot has concluded that any future development of the model will need to address key concerns and consolidate learning from the pilot.

Clear, comprehensive and accessible training and guidance for the judiciary and family justice professionals is required and needs to be formally and effectively disseminated. Further development of face-to-face judicial training based on the specific interpersonal and communication skills required to enable parties to participate meaningfully could be considered for judges wishing to adopt the model. The information provided to parents may benefit from review, to include seeking feedback from parents and professionals to understand whether it is sufficiently clear and thorough on the settlement conference process and its potential implications.

The evaluation has been published by the Ministry of Justice and is available here.

Settlement conferences originated in Canada as an innovative and less adversarial model for reaching decisions in public and private family law cases. The approach was piloted by the judiciary in several family courts in England and Wales from June 2016. This pilot was subject to a process evaluation to understand how the model worked in practice from the perspective of the family justice professionals involved.

The evaluation report presents the findings from 33 qualitative interviews with a range of professional participants including family judges, legal representatives, Cafcass guardians and social workers. Data was also collected by judges for each settlement conference that took place during the two-year evaluation period between June 2016 and June 2018.

In pilot areas (outside of Liverpool where there has been substantially greater experience of facilitating settlement conferences, which might have distorted findings), 36 per cent of public law settlement conferences led to resolution of the case (where a final hearing was no longer required), and up to 76 per cent narrowed at least some of the issues. In private law, 45 per cent of settlement conferences led to the resolution of the case, and up to 85 per cent narrowed at least some issues. The proportion of cases that were resolved during settlement conferences in Liverpool was higher; 52 per cent in public law and 56 per cent in private law cases.

Guardians and social workers said the opportunity to expand on their recommendations was helpful to progress the case, compared with standard court hearings where communication via legal teams created 'layers of separation' between parties. Judges and legal representatives believed these open discussions enabled parties to focus on realistic options for the case.

Professionals reflected that being able to speak directly to the judge gave parents more of a 'voice' in proceedings and was important for them to feel listened to and understood.

Interviewees were keen to stress that not all parents and cases were suitable for settlement conferences, and the assessment of which type of case, or characteristics of parents that were appropriate was not straightforward. Settlement conferences for parents who required the support of intermediaries or the Official Solicitor were not considered appropriate as they were unlikely to be able to meaningfully consent and engage in the collaborative process.

Judges tended to adopt a flexible approach in assessing cases for suitability. Overall, they argued that there were no set criteria that could be followed to determine the suitability of cases for a settlement conference, other than consent to take part.

Views on the appropriateness of cases for settlement conferences with a potential outcome of permanent removal of children from their parents were mixed. Professionals agreed that permanent separation is particularly difficult for parents to agree to, and legal representatives questioned whether, and how, a settlement conference could be meaningful if there were no options for compromise. Others stressed that settlement conferences did not allow for the legal 'checks and balances' that come as part of the scrutiny of evidence within a final hearing. Whilst judicial views were mixed, many did not consider them automatically unsuitable for the approach. Other professionals agreed that in some cases, where parents have accepted that they are unable to care for their children and that adoption is in their children's best interests, a settlement conference may be a useful forum to discuss and resolve peripheral issues of the case and allow parents to avoid a potentially distressing final hearing where they may be cross-examined and hear evidence.

For the report, click here.