The two most common methods for settling legal disputes are through settlement conferences and mediation. Though they may appear similar at first glance, there are significant differences between these two processes, which can affect your approach to dispute resolution and the outcome of your case. While both settlement conferences and mediation share some similarities, there are key differences that set them apart.
Let’s explore those differences in greater detail and when it might be appropriate to use each method.
What are Settlement Conferences?
A settlement conference is a meeting between the parties involved in a dispute. They discuss the issues at hand and try to reach a mutually agreeable settlement. It can be either court-ordered or voluntarily arranged.
The primary difference between a judicial settlement conference and a voluntary settlement conference is that a judicial settlement conference is mandatory.
During a settlement conference, each party shares their position with the others and exchanges information and offers until they settle upon an agreement. The parties can be represented by attorneys, but it is not mandatory.
Settlement conferences are typically more formal than mediation, and there is often a specific protocol that parties must follow. This process can be useful in cases of litigation or when parties hope to avoid going to trial by reaching a formal agreement.
What is Mediation?
Mediation, on the other hand, is a voluntary process where the parties work with a neutral third party, known as a mediator, to try to reach a resolution. The mediator has specialized skills in negotiation, communication, and problem-solving, and they facilitate the discussion between the parties.
The key difference between mediation and settlement conferences is the presence of a neutral third party who doesn’t take sides with either party. The neutral evaluation of the mediator helps both parties communicate effectively and find common ground.
Mediation can be used at any stage of a dispute, and it can be particularly valuable when parties want to maintain control over the outcome or keep private matters out of public record.
During mediation, the parties are encouraged to identify the issues they need to resolve, working together to create a solution that works for everyone involved.
The mediator does not make any decisions; they are simply there to help the parties communicate effectively and find common ground.
The Key Differences Between Settlement Conference and Mediation
Now that we have an understanding of what a settlement conference and mediation are let’s take a closer look at the key differences:
- Voluntary VS. Ordered: Settlement conferences can be ordered by the court or arranged voluntarily by the parties, while mediation is a voluntary process that must be agreed upon by all parties involved.
- Role of Neutral Party: In settlement conferences, a third party is not always present, and if there is one, they do not facilitate the discussion between the parties. In mediation, a neutral third party mediates the conversation and helps the parties reach an agreement.
- Decision-Making Power: In settlement conferences, the outcome is determined on a give-and-take basis between the parties, as the parties don’t have any objective mediator who can influence decisions. In contrast, the mediator in a mediation just facilitates conversations while the parties come up with their solution, having total control over the outcome.
- Formal vs. Informal: Settlement conferences are more formal as compared to mediation due to their legal involvement and the need for presenting facts and evidence, and the parties are usually expected to represent themselves or have legal help. Mediation is less formal and provides more flexibility to the parties.
- Outcome: In a settlement conference, the parties work on reaching a mutually agreeable settlement. Mediation offers more of a collaborative environment and tends to produce creative and often more comprehensive solutions.
- Records: In a settlement conference, anything said by the parties is typically not considered confidential and can be brought up in court during legal proceedings. However, anything said by the parties or the mediator in mediation remains confidential, giving the parties more freedom in what they can say.
Often, both types of dispute resolution can be used in tandem, depending on the nature and sensitivity of the issues at hand.
When to Use Settlement Conference
A settlement conference is an appropriate choice in specific situations. It can be helpful if you want to create a formal agreement or avoid the trial process.
In cases of litigation, settlement conferences are commonly utilized, and when the parties do not agree on specific issues, this process allows the parties to exchange facts and other relevant things.
A settlement conference helps attorneys resolve multiple issues, enables them to parse out the different issues, and then concentrate on which ones are critically important. It helps advocates work together to quickly solve one issue at a time.
When to Use Mediation
Mediation is appropriate when the parties have an ongoing relationship or when they want to maintain control over the outcome of their dispute.
It is useful when collaborative discussions are necessary to solve issues and build a constructive relationship between parties, such as in partnerships, partnerships dissolution, labor disputes, etc.
Additionally, mediation is less punitive than the court system, which is beneficial for people who don’t want to risk any unfavorable outcomes. Mediation is easier on the parties’ bank accounts, often costing a fraction of litigation costs.
Mediation outcomes are not public, unlike the litigation process, which is a benefit if the dispute involves sensitive or personal issues.
Moreover, mediation can be valuable in situations where there is limited time or a lack of evidence. It has the advantage of speed and confidentiality, as the mediator works with the parties to find a resolution that meets their needs and interests.
Mediation has its advantages in many situations, but it is not always appropriate. For example, in cases of domestic violence, mediation may not be suitable or safe.
It is also less effective when there is an unequal power relationship or when there is an issue involving criminal actions. In such cases, the court system might be more appropriate.
Both settlement conferences and mediation offer a way for parties to resolve a dispute amicably. The decision between the two will depend on several factors, including the specific situation and the parties’ willingness to commit to the process.
While settlement conferences are relatively more formal and involve an exchange of information between parties to reach an agreement, mediation tends to be the more collaborative process that puts the parties in focus.
Mediation offers additional advantages, such as cost-effectiveness, confidentiality, and preserving relationships, which may make it a preferred method for many types of disputes.
Regardless of the dispute resolution method, it is good practice to have experienced legal counsel involved, as they can help you navigate the process most effectively. It can be a difficult and emotional process, and professional legal help is needed to ensure that the issue’s resolution is equitable, practical, and in everyone’s best interest.
All in all, to say that the difference between a settlement conference VS. mediation is one of emphasis is no overstatement. One highlights an agreement formulated in the context of certainty, while the other underscores the delicate relationship between the parties that need to be nurtured.
If you want to learn more about mediation and alternative dispute resolution, contact ADR Times for educational materials and training courses on a variety of mediation and dispute resolution topics.
- Removal to Federal Court - June 2, 2023
- What Is a Change Order? - May 30, 2023
- What Is Preemption? - May 25, 2023