Many Iowa counties require that a Settlement Conference be held in divorce and custody cases. The purpose of the Settlement Conference is to get the parties and attorneys to try and work out some of all of the issues in the case, so as to avoid needing to have a Trial. While the exact procedure will vary in different Iowa counties, the Settlement Conference procedure discussed below is what is used in the 7th Judicial District of Iowa, which includes the counties of Scott, Cedar, Muscatine, Jackson, and Clinton.
The Settlement Conference is a time when an Iowa District Court judge will take some time – sometimes just a few minutes and sometimes over an hour – to talk to the parties and their attorneys. The parties and their attorneys are also expected to discuss matters among themselves. The purpose of that discussion is to try and work out the differences of opinion in the case, so that settlement can be reached. Sometimes, when the parties are very close to settlement, that discussion with the judge can help the parties come together and reach agreement. Even in cases where the parties are very far apart, the judge may be able to persuade a party who is being less-than-reasonable that their position is not one that will prevail at trial.
However, at a Settlement Conference in Iowa, there is no requirement that the parties reach agreement. The Settlement Conference judge cannot force the parties to settle. Indeed, the Local Rules say that the Iowa District Judge assigned to the Settlement Conference cannot be the same judge who later handles the trial. That rule means that the parties and their attorneys can speak freely with the Settlement Conference judge, without having to worry that the discussion will be used by that same judge at the trial. It is important to remember that the Settlement Conference judges are human and can be incorrect just as any other human can be, and as such their suggestions and opinions should be taken with a grain of salt.
Settlement Conferences can be useful tools that help cases to settle, saving everyone time and expense. However, a party at a Settlement Conference in Iowa should not feel pressured to settle their case as they have a right to proceed to trial. Some cases can and do settle, while in other cases it is prudent to reject a bad settlement offer and proceed to trial. As an attorney who has attended a great many such Settlement Conferences with my divorce and custody clients in Iowa, I can think of Settlement Conferences that were incredibly productive, and some where the opposing party’s unreasonableness prevented any productive discussion. Each Settlement Conference, like each case, is unique.