The Delaware County Domestic Relations Court just completed its sixth successful Settlement Week! Conducted twice annually, one week in May and one week in November, Settlement Week is when we bring in private mediators to help families resolve disputes.
Our goal in the Domestic Relations Court is to help families who are experiencing difficult times resolve their conflict. That said, it’s also fair to say that our cases are somewhat unique and best-served with an equally unique approach.
So, what makes our cases different? And how does Settlement Week best serve the community?
Well, in most other court cases there is a dispute between two or more parties that usually will not have an ongoing relationship. For example, in a breach of contract case, those involved might not even see each other again after court, let alone have any personal interaction. The same cannot be said for the people we serve. The vast majority of our cases involve children. Therefore, parties must continue a co-parent relationship long after any court case is closed.
Settlement Week provides an opportunity for resolution through negotiation and settlement. It allows people to maintain control over their case, and more importantly, their lives. Yes, courts are the ultimate arbiter of conflict (by conducting trials), but I believe other forms of dispute resolution are often better suited to domestic relations, which is why we created Settlement Week.
We conducted our first one in November 2018, and our program has come a long way and improved a great deal. We created Settlement Week without the benefit of working from an existing model. Why? Because I could find no other Domestic Relations Court in Ohio that had such a program. Now that we have a couple of years under our belt, we can see the advantages to not only those directly involved, but to the community as a whole.
During Settlement Week, we bring in some of the best, private, domestic relations mediators in central Ohio. The mediators agree to a reduced fee as part of the program. This results in several positive outcomes. First, families have their case mediated by some of the best in the business at a reduced cost. Second, during Settlement Week, the court schedules few, if any, hearings. This ensures attorneys and parties are available to conduct all mediations. It also creates additional time for me and my magistrates to work on cases, ensuring timely orders and decisions by the court. Third, if mediation results in a settlement, the parties’ acknowledgment of their agreement is accepted, under oath, to achieve finality of the case. And fourth, if a full settlement is not reached, the mediation often helps parties advance their case to a settlement at a later date, or at the very least, reduces issues for trial.
Handling domestic relations cases in this way helps shift the focus from an adversarial trial to dispute resolution. This paradigm shift is very important, as it’s in the long-term best interest of the families going through our court to resolve their own disputes (potentially eliminating future cases). Plus, Settlement Week creates no additional cost to the county, so it is a win-win.
We did our best to create a successful first Settlement Week, but as my father, Robert (Bob) Fuller, always told me, “You learn by doing.” And we have learned a lot! From how long to schedule mediation sessions and what information to provide the mediators, to forms for the mediators, court orders before and after mediation, and training mediators to use Zoom, we have made a lot of improvements.
We didn’t always know what to expect. In fact, prior to our first Settlement Week, I struggled to define what a successful program would look like. However, as case, after case, after case reached resolution, we knew Settlement Week was a success! How? Well, before our first Settlement Week, we received numerous questions from attorneys asking if they had to participate. They wanted to know if the court was going to order parties to take part. Now, those same attorneys request their cases be put into Settlement Week, or request case management orders be tailored to include Settlement Week.
It is gratifying to know our program is helping so many families reach resolution, but that doesn’t mean our work is done. We will continue to update and improve Settlement Week, mindfully looking for ways to obtain the best ongoing results for families going through Domestic Relations Court. No one wants to experience an issue that brings them to court, but if that happens, we hope programs like Settlement Week will make the journey to resolution a little less difficult for all families involved.
Randall D. Fuller is judge of the Domestic Relations Division of the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas. Judge Fuller is a life-long resident of Delaware County.