Pursuant to NJ Court Rule 5:5-5, all counties in the state are required to maintain an Early Settlement Panel (ESP) program. The goal of the program is to promote resolution prior to trial. Most divorce cases will settle prior to trial either at an ESP or otherwise. The panels are usually comprised of two-three attorneys experienced in family law. Additionally, some counties offer specialized panels for complex cases wherein the panel will feature some of the most experienced attorneys practicing matrimonial law. Each party should submit a memo to the panel either prior to or at the time of the ESP. The memo should outline the issues in the case and narrow which issues need to be resolved as well as any issues that have already been settled.
Issues to be considered during an ESP include alimony, child support, college and private school costs, equitable distribution, debts, life insurance, tax issues, and counsel fees. It is important to make sure discovery is complete prior to the ESP to ensure the panelists can be effective and provide a comprehensive recommendation. Additionally, parties should be sure their Case Information Sheet is completed and up-to-date. Cases that settle at the panel can conclude that day. The terms of the agreement can be reduced to writing or put on the record and the divorce decree can be issued. It’s possible parties can be directed to an ESP more than once. If the ESP doesn’t work, the next step is likely another form of alternate dispute resolution, e.g. economic mediation or binding arbitration.