OK, last two types of hearings, mostly because they don’t warrant a post by themselves: settlement conference and pretrial conference. The settlement conference is exactly what it sounds like - a court appearance devoted to settlement. The settlement conference usually takes place 3-4 months before trial. In different courts in Maryland, different things may happen at a settlement conference. If you have a court-ordered custody evaluation, the evaluator would give his/her report on the record (recorded after being sworn to tell the truth). You or your attorney are allowed to ask clarifying questions only. At the settlement conference, the magistrate may try to help settle the case. They may make suggestions or evaluate the case if it will help. If you settle the case, the magistrate may put the agreement on the record or maybe you could get your divorce at that hearing, if you have reached full agreement.
If both you and the other party have attorneys, the conference could take a number of different forms: it could be in the courtroom and very formal on the record, or the Magistrate could be more informal and meet with the attorneys in their office, and then the attorneys come out and talk to their clients and each other. The latter form sometimes makes clients really uncomfortable, because it's somewhat like the Wizard of Oz, in that you don't know what is being said in chambers (which is what we call the Magistrate or Judge's office). Here's my $.02, having been both a client and one of those attorneys. I prefer the informal. When people know they are being recorded for posterity, which is what happens at ALL TIMES when you are in a courtroom (the recorder is almost never turned off), they are not going to think out loud. They are not going to ask curious questions. They are not going to have a conversation. No one is going to assess the merits of various positions in the case. All talking in a courtroom is formal, and usually very one way - you talk to the judge/magistrate, and they make a decision. In chambers, there is a lot of give and take. The Magistrate will verbalize assessments of strengths and weaknesses in a case, and as they WILL NOT be the trial judge, are not prejudging your case. There are times I like that, because often one side or the other will not see a weakness in their case that could be fatal; sometimes one side thinks they have a smoking gun which really is not. Having a third party tell them that can make all the difference in the world. Sometimes, the Magistrate comes up with a compromise or a way of reaching compromise of which no one thought. At any rate, their point of view is from the receiver of the evidence, so you get some idea how the Judge might view your case and your smoking gun. I think that's very helpful, and yes, I thought so as well when I was you, the client, and wasn't invited into chambers. It's maddening for the client not to know what's being said, and I know you imagine that we're all back there having coffee, cracking jokes, exchanging the secret handshake and "fixing" your case. I won't lie to you and say that we're all deadly serious back there, but there's no secret handshake, and we don't predetermine your case. What does happen is that we come up with some different insight to bring back to you so we can seriously discuss settlement.
Here's the big secret - the Judge/Magistrate doesn't want to decide your case. I know, that's what they're paid to do, make a decision. There are, however, more cases in the courts than there are judges and magistrates to hear them. They have more than enough to do without your case. They, as well as we, know that families are better served making their own decisions. The studies show that folks who have a hand in crafting their own settlement come back to court less often, if at all, and that's better for families and for the court. The judiciary knows this as well as those of us in the Trenches, so they really work hard to help you settle your case.
The pretrial conference is perhaps the most deadly boring of all court appearances. It is the hearing at which the court makes certain the case is ready for trial. In some courts, that’s where you get your merits trial date if you asked for more than a half a day of trial. In others, you already have a trial date and the court is making sure that you have identified all of your potential witnesses and designated your documents, photos and other evidence. They want to know that there are no outstanding discovery disputes or other issues that will hold up trial. THe court also wants to make sure that you can try the case in the amount of time you told the court you need for trial (remember I talked about this when we discussed the scheduling conference?). The court requires clients to be at this hearing as well, but for the life of me, I can’t understand why, if you already have your trial date. Boring and short, those are the bywords for pretrial conferences. Here in the Trenches.