The Early Settlement Program (ESP) is a mediation program used to help divorcing couples reach an agreement on the terms of their divorce instead of going to trial.
Settlement can shorten litigation time, save money, and ease some of the emotional burden of a divorce trial. For these reasons, it is in the best interest of the couple to make an effort to settle their case at the ESP hearing.
Under Court Rule 5.5-5, judges refer cases to ESP after reviewing the pleadings and case information statements submitted by both parties. Participation is mandatory for couples referred to the program. Both parties must submit their papers to the ESP coordinator and the panelists at least five days before the hearing date. If you fail to participate or to provide required information, you might be required to pay the attorney fees of the other party or the court might dismiss your pleading.
Panelists are experienced family lawyers who volunteer to help parties reach a fair settlement, ensure justice, and save financial and emotional costs in a divorce.
The panel will hear both sides of a case. They will review your supporting documents, including each party's case information statement. Both parties are required to prepare an ESP memo and provide this document to the panelists. This memo will outline your position on child support, alimony, equitable distribution, the apportionment of debts, the treatment of the marital home, and any others issues that deal with the distribution of marital assets. The panelists will listen to both sides.
The members of the ESP panel will discuss the case and recommend a settlement. Their recommendation will be based upon the panelist's interpretation of the law, the fairness and the equitable factors in your case, and their opinion, based on their experience, of how the judge will likely rule if the case is tried.
The ESP Panel only deals with the financial and the property distribution of your case. The panelists do not deal with issues of custody or visitation.
It is your choice as to whether to accept or reject the recommendation of the panel. The guidance of the ESP panel is not binding on you or your spouse. You are not legally obligated to accept it. The judge assigned to your case will not know what the panel recommends. The sole purpose of the recommendation is to give the parties a better idea of how their case should be settled before a trial. You do have the right to have a trial if you do not want to accept the panel’s recommendation.
If you and your spouse, assisted by your lawyer(s), agree to accept the recommendation of the ESP panel, the agreement will be placed on the record before a judge. Both of you will testify, under oath, that you understand the terms of the settlement and that you agree to follow it. At that time, the judge also will hear the evidence about the cause of action for the divorce. Usually, you will be divorced on the same day that the case was heard by the ESP panel.