For the last few years Hennepin County has followed a unique process for marriage dissolutions.  The process is aimed at trying to expedite courtroom proceedings and minimize the conflict and the expense associated when parties quickly resort to litigating dissolutions.  In the fall of 2010, Carver County, Scott County and Dakota County jumped on the band wagon and have adopted Hennepin County’s process.  It works like this:

As soon as a party files a petition or answer with the court, the matter is assigned to a judge or referee who will be responsible for all aspects of your case until its conclusion. Within two or three weeks, the Court will schedule an Initial Case Management Conference (“ICMC”). All lawyers and both parties must appear at the ICMC. And, in almost all circumstances the parties will not be allowed to file motions, including temporary motions, until the ICMC takes place.  Prior to the ICMC each party fills out as simple form that provides an overview to the court of the issues relevant to their case.

Depending on the judge or referee, most ICMC’s are informal. The judge will come into the courtroom and give a small presentation to the parties. There is no court reporter and no one gives testimony. This presentation has a common theme- the benefit of working cooperatively to reach a mediated settlement.

The judge will then discuss what issues they believe your case presents, what needs to be done to reach a resolution of those issues, what procedures are necessary to prepare the matter for resolution (either through subsequent settlement or trial) and how much time will be needed to complete these tasks.

The parties are also given an opportunity to dispose of issues they have already resolved.  Some judges will allow this information to be placed on the record. At this point, it will also be determined whether a temporary hearing is necessary (for thing like temporary maintenance and support).

Next, the parties discuss with the court whether one or both of the processes called early neutral evaluations would be beneficial to the parties. If the court is advised a custody/parenting time issue is present, the judge will likely order that the parties participate in a Social Early Neutral Evaluation (“SENE”). In this process the parties and counsel are scheduled to meet with two  evaluators – one male and one female.

At the SENE, each party tells their story and then responds to questions posed by the evaluators as to how they have traditionally parented/co-parented the children, and what custody/parenting time arrangement each desires. The two evaluators will then briefly adjourn, and then return to advise the parties what recommendation would result from a full custody evaluation. Lawyers usually attend the SENE with their clients, but often they say little.  Frankly, the parties know their situation better than the lawyers. Many parties are able to reach a settlement of most parenting time issues after hearing this informal report.

A second option is a financial Financial Early Neutral Evaluation (“FENE”.)  An FENE is for people who are having difficulties amicably dividing assets and debts. This is not the place to discuss who gets the bedroom set, but how to divide pensions and real estate. As part of this process, other trained attorneys or financial experts not involved in the matter are chosen as an evaluator.  They are provided with financial information as to the parties’ respective income, needs, and assets. This expert then advises the parties of what result he or she believes would occur as a result of a trial on the matter.

Different attorneys have different opinions about the ICMC/ENE process.  Frankly, I think it is very useful and although takes some time and cost up front, is cost saving because it prevents expensive and protracted litigation. A good judge can be very helpful in resolving matters at the ICMC which prevents the parties from needing to seek temporary relief.  Moreover, I personally believe the ENE process is much more effective than mediation.  At most ENEs, the parties remain in one room together versus being split up into separate rooms: this forces dialogue between the parties.  Moreover, quite often a mediator will not provide his or her opinion on the case in the same manner an evaluator will.  This is especially true at an SENE where the evaluators provide suggestions that at minimum can work as framework for making final custody decisions.