As a divorce attorney, I am constantly told by my clients that they want to settle their divorce matter amicably. While I remind them that it “takes two to tango,” and both parties need to approach settlement in good faith and with a sense of reasonableness, sometimes parties need more than their respective attorneys to get them to settlement. The Courts in New Jersey recognize the importance of mediated settlement, and now require the parties to divorce attend a mandatory court appearance called an Early Settlement Panel or ESP, for short. This form of alternative dispute resolution is slightly different from county to county, but the intent is the same: to move parties closer to resolving their case without the necessity of a trial.
The term “panel” refers to the group of experienced matrimonial attorneys in each county who make up the roster of volunteers who hear cases and provide recommendations to the parties and their counsel as to how the case should be settled. The panelist reviews some documentation in advance of meeting with counsel and the parties. This documentation generally includes an Early Settlement Panel Statement, which includes proposals from each side as to resolution of the issues, and the Case Information Statements of the parties, which outline the financial circumstances, income, assets, and the marital lifestyle. The panelist(s) as to each case conference with counsel and the parties and often provide valuable insight into how a case can settle. These third-parties represent a neutral voice, free of advocacy for one side or the other. In Ocean County, each case is assigned to one panelist, but in other counties, the panel can include two or even three attorneys. The panelists recommendations are confidential and non-binding, but it is encouraged that parties accept that recommendation or utilize the recommendation in fostering a settlement with consideration given to the recommendation. If both parties accept the recommendation of the panelist(s), they are generally able to leave the courthouse that day with a Final Judgment of Divorce. Sometimes, the parties accept the recommendation, but then request a short time frame whereby an attorney for one of the parties can prepare a formalized, written Property Settlement Agreement. If both parties cannot agree, or either party chooses to disregard the recommendation of the panel, their case continues through the Court and may require the involvement of a Judge. This option will require additional time and money spent in attorney fees and costs. In this regard, having a neutral third-party, who is an experienced matrimonial attorney, volunteering his or her time can be invaluable. Accordingly, parties should enter the Early Settlement Panel appearance with an open mind and view it as an opportunity to stem litigation.