Crime & Courts

Judges try new style of mediation

During the emotional arguments of a divorce or child custody case, some people just want a judge's ear.

That's why Sedgwick County District Court recently instituted a new kind of mediation involving judges.

Judge Robb Rumsey, who presides over the family law department, began what he called judicial settlement conferences to help people work out their disputes.

"Sometimes, people just want to be heard by a judge and tell their side of the story," Rumsey said. "And then it's equally important to hear from a judge."

The settlement conferences are a way for people to interact with a judge without receiving the finality of an order for or against them, Rumsey said.

Family law disputes have had mediators or case managers for years to help reach agreements out of court. But most of the time, that was handled by a neutral attorney.

The new settlement conferences allow parties in divorces or child custody issues to plead their case to a judge without a trial.

In essence, Rumsey said, a case has two judges.

Each case is assigned to a trial judge, who would make the final decision. But those judges aren't involved in the settlement conferences. Those are assigned to other judges, who may even be from outside family court.

"If the case goes to trial, you don't want the trial judge prejudging the facts," Rumsey said.

In the judicial conferences, the parties and their lawyers can present their cases to a judge, who will then tell them what their chances will be if they go to trial.

"They can tell you how judges view these issues in Sedgwick County and how they may be likely to rule," said Kristy Simpson, a Wichita attorney who practices family law.

It allows clients to decide whether to settle the case or take it to trial with information they may not get from a lawyer — including their own.

"Having a judge tell you you're not likely to be successful may get their attention, if they've taken a hard line or an unreasonable position," Simpson said. "They might listen to a judge, when they won't listen to their attorney — if their attorney has even told them their position is unlikely to be successful. Some attorneys may not tell their clients about the clouds as well as the sun."

Rumsey said people involved in family court disputes can go to a judicial settlement conference just by asking for it.

So far, it's worked well, he said.

Not enough people have requested the process to yield meaningful statistics, he said, but nearly all who did reached a settlement.

"Some people reach a settlement at the conference, and some people settle a few days later," Rumsey said. "Sometimes, they need to think about it."

It doesn't replace traditional meditation or case managers.

"It just gives us another tool for people who need that extra bit of help," Rumsey said. "So far, we haven't had any negative responses to it."