A settlement conference brings parties together for a detailed discussion of a case to try to resolve the matter or narrow the issues to be determined at trial. Settlement conferences are applicable in the Magistrates Court only.
Matters that may be considered at a settlement conference include:
- whether to settle the proceeding without a hearing or by going to mediation
- how to simplify the issues
- admissions that may facilitate the hearing or reduce costs
- whether further pleadings are necessary or desirable
- the amount of damages
- the costs a party may have to pay as the litigation continues
- the possible trial length.
Successful conferences help avoid or significantly reduce litigation costs.
Note: If you have received a notice to attend a settlement conference, you must attend as directed, as a registrar can give judgment against a party who fails to attend.
How the settlement conference works
An authorised registry officer, usually a registrar, conducts a settlement conference in the courthouse where the claim was lodged. They are neutral facilitators who assist the parties in their discussions.
Other important points about settlement conferences include:
- The person conducting settlement conference constitutes a court, but the conference isn’t conducted like a formal court hearing.
- A settlement conference is not a mediation process (alternative dispute resolution).
- Everything said in a settlement conference is confidential and open discussion of contentious issues is encouraged.
- Every person in attendance is expected to behave respectfully and courteously to reach an outcome that’s reasonable for all parties.
- Settlement conferences usually take an hour; however, they may be longer or shorter depending on the case.
- The procedure for settlement conferences is governed by Part 9, Division 3 of the Uniform Civil Procedure Rules 1999.
When to have a settlement conference
You can request a settlement conference once a defence has been filed and served.
To schedule a settlement conference, send a letter of request to the registrar of the court where the claim is filed outlining:
- the estimated length of a trial
- that parties are aware of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) processes
- whether ADR is appropriate in the particular matter and, if not, why not.
The court can also direct that a conference be held at any time after a defence has been filed, even if parties don’t request one.
Your role in the conference
You must attend the settlement conference personally unless that would cause unreasonable hardship, inconvenience or excessive cost. If you are legally represented, your counsel or solicitor will be directed to attend a settlement conference.
You may request to attend a conference via telephone by writing to the courthouse.
Each person who attends a settlement conference must:
- fully understand their party’s case and be able to answer questions about the claim or defence
- be able to make and respond to any settlement offer.
If a legal representative engages a town agent to attend the settlement conference, the agent must also be sufficiently aware of the case and able to negotiate a settlement.
Outcomes of a settlement conference
Several outcomes to any settlement conference are possible, including:
- the parties may reach an agreement and decide to record it in writing
- each party may make admissions that reduce the length of a trial
- the parties may not reach an agreement, so the proceeding may need to go to trial
- a party may fail to attend and judgment may be awarded against them
- appropriate directions may be made.
If the parties reach an agreement (e.g. settlement or admissions), they may decide to put it in writing and sign it. With their consent, a written agreement can be placed with the court file and sealed, to be viewed only with the parties’ consent or by an order of the court.
Alternatively, the registrar can make any consent orders required to give effect to an agreement signed by the parties.
Unless the court orders otherwise, the costs of a settlement conference are costs in the proceeding.