by Jessica Larmand
Let’s face it, legal disputes are expensive and time consuming. Reaching an early resolution has undeniable advantages for all parties involved, especially in small claims court where many parties are not represented by a lawyer. The good news is that the small claims procedure has a built-in, mandatory step where parties try to resolve the matter – the settlement conference.
What is a Settlement Conference?
The settlement conference is governed by Rule 13 of the Rules of the Small Claims Court. Settlement conferences provide the parties with an informal, and private forum to speak frankly to narrow down the issues in dispute, to encourage settlement and expedite the resolution of the matter and, if necessary, to prepare for trial. To encourage frank discussion, settlement offers and discussions are privileged, meaning, what is said at the settlement conference cannot be used against you at trial.
Barriers to Settlement
The settlement conference is often the first time the parties have spoken to one another since the claim was started and emotions sometimes run high. While litigation can be nerve racking it is important to avoid interrupting the speaker, or unreasonably refusing otherwise reasonable offers of settlement. Having a representative at the settlement conference can help keep discussions focused and productive while still allowing the parties to speak frankly and be heard.
Parties sometimes enter settlement conferences with the mindset that nothing is going to happen or that it is a pointless step in the procedure. This is the wrong approach. The settlement conference allows the parties to see the entire picture, rather than a limited set of facts and evidence. Keeping an open mindset is critical to engage in positive settlement discussions during and after the settlement conference.
Advantages of Settlement Conferences
An early resolution means less money spent on court and legal fees and less time will be required to resolve the matter. In addition, something equally important to consider is the aspect of preserving relationships.
Preserving relationships may be especially important in matters involving neighbours or close business partners. Engaging in meaningful discussions at the settlement conference allows parties understand each other’s positions and encourages settlement. In contrast, going right to trial, where the typical outcome produces a “winner” and a “loser”’, may create animosity between the parties and tarnish a relationship that could negatively impact your daily life moving forward.
Another aspect that can encourage parties to settle is getting a neutral party’s opinion on the facts. An unfavourable opinion may encourage parties to settle and be more lenient in their settlement thresholds.
When going through the small claims process, the settlement conference offers an excellent forum to make significant progress in reaching a solution. When both parties are committed to resolving the issue out of court, it is important to reap the benefits of frank and confidential discussion when stakes are at the highest.
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