In an effort to expand dispute resolution options for litigants, the judicial system developed a unique Judicial Settlement Conference Program for circuit court cases that combines aspects of facilitative mediation with judicial settlement techniques. Although settlement conferences have been available to circuit courts for many years, many courts had not utilized these due to insufficient time and resources.
The hybrid Judicial Settlement Conference Program began on November 2003 when a group of retired circuit court judges were trained in mediation and settlement conference skills. U.S. Magistrate Judge Karen Klein from North Dakota and U.S. Magistrate Judge William Cassady from Alabama conducted the 16-hour training which was held at the Supreme Court building in Richmond.
These trained settlement judges are available to all circuit courts to provide settlement conference services at no cost to the parties. Parties referred to settlement conference may select any judge from this list of trained settlement judges to handle their matter. To date there have been nearly 12,000 referrals to the Judicial Settlement Conference Program and nearly 10,000 settlement conferences conducted.
While the retired judges conducting settlement conferences are compensated in the same fashion as when recalled, they have no trial authority with regard to a given case, but merely assist the parties in assessing their case and possibly reaching settlement. In addition, the retired judge maintains confidentiality with respect to the settlement conference proceedings and only reports to the referring court the terms of the agreement, if authorized by the parties, or the fact that no agreement was reached.
In an effort to support the increased level of referral of cases to the Judicial Settlement Conference Program, a second training was held in March 2005 in which additional retired circuit court judges were provided mediation and settlement skills training.
This program has opened new options for the circuit courts and litigants. Feedback from lawyers on exit surveys indicates that they appreciate the benefit of having an experienced judge with significant expertise facilitate the settlement of their case. Furthermore, they enjoy retaining more ability to control and craft a settlement, which is acceptable to them or, if not, proceed to trial. This has been an excellent process for reducing docket congestion while ensuring the prospects of a quality outcome. Finally, this program has offered retired judges an additional opportunity to stay active, to use the skills developed as a judge, and to develop new skills in facilitating settlements.