This is the final segment of a 3-part series on Family Court Appearance as part of the strategy. (Read the Part 2 here.) This segment focuses on what’s usually the final conference before trial, the pre-trial conference. This particular conference (hearing) is a sign that the case is actually going to trial. If your case has made it to this phase, then it is safe to assume that all settlement attempts have been futile.
What is the Family Court Pre-trial Conference?
The pretrial conference hearing is the step before being placed on the trial track. Cases that have not been settled, usually after several attempts by the court and/or other means, must go to trial or hearing. Even the court has tried to weed out the issues that could be resolved at every court appearance before this one, they will still try at the pre-trial. Conversely, in some cases, the court will not even allow the pre-trial to take place if there have not been any settlement attempts. Remember, the court’s objective is to forego trial altogether. (Only about 10-15% of divorce or custody cases actually go to trial.)
What is the Goal of the Family Court Pre-Trial Conference?
The court’s objective is to have one last shot at settlement, but it’s also to highlight the issues that will be addressed at trial. The court needs to know this for several reasons, some have to do with logistics while others have to do with substance. Let’s talk about the logistics or procedure. When the judge knows that a case is going to be added to their trial calendar, they need to allocate resources. Those resources include time, staff, etc. They need to choose the best day, the best time, etc. based on all of these. Procedurally, the court needs to decide how evidence should be submitted, who should be able to testify, and so on.
From a substantive perspective, the court looks at things a little differently. Substantive considerations are things that relate directly to the laws that apply to the case. This is the case, particularly where there are nuanced issues involved in the case. One such example is UCCJEA cases, these cases are always complex and require exploration of all applicable laws to get a clear insight.
The judge will simplify issues, eliminate claims and/or defenses that are not applicable, get parties to admit to some things, identify documents & witnesses; make a motion, witness, etc. schedule and identify who will be doing what. At this point, all forensics or expert reports should have been submitted and all investigations should be completed. If these things are not in order, then the pre-trial might be held over, or continued for another date.
Using the Family Court Pre-trial Conference Strategically
As a divorce or custody litigant, you can certainly use the pre-trial conference as part of your Game plan. If for some reason you were unable to glean the judge’s view on a specific issue in your case, this is your last opportunity to. At this point, the judge secretly held out hope that this case would settle. So now that he or she knows that it has not, they are more than likely not too pleased. At this point, they might not be discreet about their displeasure. Use this opportunity to stress to the court the efforts you made to settle the case. If you were the one to make offers, reasonable counteroffers, etc., then you should certainly bring this to the court’s attention.
In addition, use this opportunity to appeal to the judge’s primary interest in preserving its time and resources for other cases. You can do this again, by showing the judge that you were the one to make several attempts to settle. Attempt to settle must be in good faith, but if you were the one to reach out to initiate settlement or the one to offer counterproposals, get the judge to be the nudge.
And last, use your “magic bullet” at this stage of your case. You do have one, right? You should have something in your arsenal that you were holding onto for your just in case. And if you do, then this is that just in case moment. Hopefully, you learned not to show your entire hand throughout the entire process. This is exactly why so that when all else fails and you have the attention of the court, you can gain an ally.
Whether pro se (self represented) or represented by an attorney, how you incorporate the pre-trial conference should be given considerable attention. In fact, if you have an attorney, this is the time that you gain clarity where you questioned their competence in the way they handled your case up until this point. (Read here how you can work effectively with your family law attorney.)
If your case made it to this phase of the court process then you should have a few things under your belt. From a practical standpoint of course, but from a strategic one as well. You should be able to separate your feelings from the process by now so that these court appearances are no longer a place you associate with fear and intimidation.
If you would like to discuss how to develop a solid Game Plan for your divorce or custody, please feel free to schedule a FREE 15min consultation here.