COVID Court closures are expected to create a significant backlog of family cases and delays getting to trial and resolution. This is especially difficult for families whose complex situation calls for Court intervention, but access to the Court has been quite limited. What options do these families have while they await rescheduled hearing and trial dates & their day in Court?
This series of articles explores options to help stabilize families in crisis through:
· Parent Coordination
· Early Neutral Case Evaluation
What is an Early Neutral Case Evaluation?
While the exact process can vary, it usually involves a blending of an Early Neutral Evaluation and a Settlement Conference. The goal is settlement, and if settlement cannot be achieved, receiving input about the strengths and weaknesses of their positions, likely outcome of litigation and its cost/benefit, and potential services to assist the family as their case progresses.
The process involves:
(1) the parties, their attorneys, or both appear before an impartial evaluator and present in summary fashion the evidence and arguments to support their respective positions
(2) the evaluator renders an evaluation of their positions and an opinion as to the likely outcome of the litigation; and, may include:
(3) settlement efforts to discuss the issues and positions of the parties in an attempt to agree on a resolution of all or part of the dispute by means other than trial.
What Does an Early Neutral Case Evaluation Look Like?
Generally, Early Neutral Case Evaluation consists of:
· Intake by the neutral evaluator(s), to confirm no prior contact with the family
· Scheduling the evaluation
· At the evaluation:
· Each parent or spouse (and their attorneys, if represented and participating) presenting their evidence & arguments
· Deliberation by the neutral evaluator(s) and conveying their evaluation and opinion of likely outcome
· Remaining time dedicated to settlement discussions, facilitated by the neutrals.
How Can Early Neutral Case Evaluation Help During Court Backlog?
Early Neutral Case Evaluation is a voluntary process parties can pursue at any time. It does not depend upon the Court’s calendar. Potential outcomes are:
· Settlement of some or all the issues presented;
· No settlement, in which case the parties and their attorneys proceed to other processes to resolve their matter, but with information about services and potential outcomes that may assist them going forward;
· In certain cases requiring additional services from outside professionals/providers before the neutral evaluation portion can be completed, a recommended process and opportunity to resume Early Neutral Case Evaluation once additional services have been provided.
Early Neutral Case Evaluation is confidential, so no part of it can be disclosed or used in future litigation and no evaluator can be called as a witness. So, it is a confidential place for assessment and potential resolution of a family’s legal matter.
Participants could consent to being required to follow the evaluators’ recommendations on a temporary basis until the parents can have a trial in Court. This could apply to a temporary schedule, a specific legal decision on medical, education, or religion, or pressing concerns that a Court does not consider an emergency.
While only a court can make a final, binding decision, authorizing limited and temporary decision-making to a neutral evaluator is an opportunity to create stability in and a forward-moving process for a chaotic, complex family situation until the family has its day in Court.
Since 2002, Lindsay Parvis has represented clients in Maryland custody, divorce, and marital matters. She negotiates, litigates, and advocates for the best interests of her clients, whether in contested litigation, uncontested settlement, or premarital and other agreements. Her clients are not only spouses and parents, but also children whose interests she is appointed by the court to represent in contested custody litigation. Lindsay strives to improve Maryland law in the General Assembly, volunteering her time to monitor, advocate, and educate about legislative developments in family law.