What is a Pre-Trial Conference in Family Court?
Family court handles a wide range of legal matters involving family relationships, including divorce, child custody and support, and domestic violence. When a family law case is filed, it typically goes through several steps before a final decision is made. One of these important steps is the pre-trial conference.
An Overview of the Pre-Trial Conference
A pre-trial conference is a meeting that takes place between the parties in a family court case and the judge prior to the final trial or hearing. The main purposes of the pre-trial conference are to identify the key issues in dispute, explore possibilities for settlement, narrow the focus for trial, and ensure the parties are prepared to move forward efficiently.
While the specifics can vary by jurisdiction, pre-trial conferences generally serve to simplify and organize the issues, evidence, and witnesses that will be presented at trial. This helps the court proceedings stay focused and run more smoothly.
Why Have a Pre-Trial Conference?
There are several important reasons why pre-trial conferences are standard practice in family court:
Promote Settlement Discussions
One of the main goals of the pre-trial conference is to encourage the parties to talk about settling their case before trial. Settlement helps avoid a lengthy, expensive, and emotionally-draining court battle. The judge will discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each side’s position and help guide realistic negotiations. Over 80% of family law cases settle before trial.
Allow Judges to Manage Their Dockets
Pre-trial conferences give judges the opportunity to review discovery, ensure both sides are prepared, set timelines for any remaining pre-trial matters, and estimate the length of trial. This helps judges efficiently manage busy court dockets.
Narrow the Issues for Trial
The pre-trial conference focuses the legal and factual issues actually in dispute. Arguments over matters not genuinely contested can be set aside. This saves time and simplifies the court proceedings.
By reviewing witness lists, exhibits, and arguments beforehand, there should be few surprises at trial. Pre-trial conferences minimize last-minute scrambles, delays, and objections that can slow down the trial process.
What Typically Happens at a Pre-Trial Conference?
While the pre-trial conference agenda can vary between courts, there are some standard elements:
Case Summary and Status Update
The judge will go over the background of the case, trial readiness, outstanding discovery, and any pending motions. This gets everyone on the same page.
Define Remaining Issues
The parties and the judge will identify and define the legal and factual issues still unresolved. Stipulations may be made to narrow the issues.
Witness and Exhibit Lists
The parties provide their witness lists and exhibit lists. Any objections to witnesses or exhibits are addressed.
Length of Trial
Based on the issues and evidence to be presented, the judge will estimate the length of the trial.
Schedule Motions and Trial Dates
Key dates are set for any additional pre-trial motions as well as the trial date(s).
The judge will discuss settlement options with the parties, either in court or in private chambers conferences. Over four-fifths of cases settle at or before the pre-trial conference.
Any special trial procedures are determined, such as a limitation on the number of witnesses or time allowed for arguments.
Who Attends the Pre-Trial Conference?
The pre-trial conference is attended by the key participants in the case:
- Judge – The judge presides over and manages the pre-trial conference. They have read the case filings and are familiar with the issues.
- Parties – The petitioner and respondent must attend the pre-trial conference, often with their attorneys.
- Attorneys – Legal counsel for both parties are present and prepared to discuss the case status, issues, and possibilities for settlement.
- Guardian ad litem – If a guardian ad litem has been appointed to represent the best interests of any minor children, they may attend the pre-trial conference.
- Court reporter – A court reporter will produce the official transcript of the pre-trial conference.
Timing of the Pre-Trial Conference
The pre-trial conference is typically scheduled by the court 1-3 months before the final trial. This provides enough time to wrap up discovery, hear motions, and allow for productive settlement talks, while keeping the trial timeline on track.
Specific deadlines for holding the pre-trial conference may be set by statute, court rules, or judicial order. Local court practices can also impact timing. But in general, no major family court case will go straight to final trial without a pre-trial conference.
How to Prepare for the Pre-Trial Conference
To have a productive pre-trial conference, thorough preparation is required:
- Review documents – Be familiar with all pleadings, discovery, motions, and other documents filed in the case. Make notes about key details.
- Organize issues – Identify and write down the legal and factual issues that remain unresolved. Think about stipulations that could simplify matters.
- List witnesses – Make a list of all witnesses you may need to call at trial, along with a brief summary of their testimony.
- Gather exhibits – Collect and number all documents and tangible objects you may use as trial exhibits.
- Consider settlement – Evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of your case. Think realistically about settlement options to propose.
- Meet with your lawyer – Discuss the pre-trial conference agenda with your attorney. Prepare any questions you have for the judge.
Thorough preparation will help you have a focused, well-organized pre-trial conference.
Typical Outcomes of the Pre-Trial Conference
The pre-trial conference sets the stage for the resolution of the case, either through settlement or trial. Typical outcomes include:
- Case settlement – The most common result is a settlement agreement. This can occur at the pre-trial conference or shortly after.
- Issues narrowed – The legal and factual issues for trial are identified and simplified as much as possible.
- Motions scheduled – Any pending motions are scheduled to be heard prior to trial.
- Trial scheduled – If no settlement is reached, the trial date(s) and timeline are set.
- Trial plan established – Procedures for the number of witnesses, time limits, exhibits, etc. are determined.
While each case is unique, the pre-trial conference produces a roadmap for how the case will proceed toward final resolution.
If No Settlement is Reached
If the case does not settle at the pre-trial conference, the court will move forward with scheduling any remaining pre-trial motions and setting trial dates.
The judge may schedule additional private settlement conferences, refer the case to mediation, or encourage the parties to keep negotiating on their own right up until trial. Settlement remains a possibility throughout the pre-trial process.
But if no agreement can be reached, the court will adjudicate the disputed issues and order a resolution following the final trial.
The pre-trial conference is a pivotal stage in a family court case, with the overarching goals of promoting settlement, focusing key issues, and ensuring efficient court proceedings. Thorough preparation and thoughtful participation in the pre-trial conference can significantly impact the case outcome. With a strong understanding of the pre-trial conference process, parties and counsel are better equipped to obtain the most favorable resolution achievable under the circumstances.
Frequently Asked Questions
What happens if I don’t attend the pre-trial conference?
Your attendance is mandatory in most jurisdictions. Failure to attend may result in sanctions, an arrest warrant, or the judge ruling against you on particular issues.
Do I have to have a lawyer for the pre-trial conference?
While not legally required, having an attorney represent you at the pre-trial is highly advisable. Settlement conferences in particular require skillful negotiation.
How should I dress and act at the pre-trial conference?
Dress professionally and be on your best behavior. The judge will form impressions at this conference that could impact rulings down the road.
Can pre-trial conferences become heated?
Yes, emotions can run high when discussing contested family law matters. But you must maintain composure and decorum throughout the pre-trial process.
What if we need more time for discovery before the trial?
Ask the judge at the pre-trial conference to extend discovery deadlines if there are specific requests outstanding that require more time to address.