by Cristin M. Lowe
Once again, Kim Kardashian’s divorce is making headlines. Kris Humphries recently failed to appear at a mandatory Settlement Conference, reportedly infuriating the judge. Rumor or not, I can say from experience that most family law judges would not be pleased if a party did not show up to one of these hearings. It is a complete waste of time for everyone involved, and with ever-decreasing financial resources, judges are never happy when they could have rearranged their calendar to accommodate a different case that is ready to go.
A Settlement Conference is somewhat self-explanatory, in that the goal is to settle the case. I like to explain it as the last ditch effort to either narrow the issues or resolve as many of them without a trial. Sometimes a trial just can’t be avoided, but in almost all cases, it is very possible to focus the scope of the trial simply by talking out the issues and taking the time to hear each party’s stance on every single concern.
Settlement Conferences are informal hearings, meaning that the judge cannot make orders regarding the outcome of the case. A judge can order that certain documents be filed or impose some sort of procedural schedule, but he or she cannot determine the merits of a case. Although that seems backwards, it is really important to create a “safe harbor” where parties and their attorneys can candidly discuss issues without the fear of the judge making a decision. Often times, judges will take attorneys into their chambers to discuss the case frankly and off the record. This face time with the judge is invaluable, as it gives the attorneys the judge’s impression of the case and his or her thoughts on settling the case.
The work is not just between the attorneys and the judge, though. In order to settle a case, it’s incredibly important that both parties appear, because attorneys don’t have the authority to make agreements about a client’s divorce case without the client’s permission. Practically speaking, no one wants someone else to determine their financial future, their custody situation, or in Kris Humphries’ case, whether or not to agree to a divorce versus an annulment. Attorneys need to be able to confer with their clients and discuss the various proposals and options being put on the table.
We don’t know why Kris Humphries did not come to court, but if you ever find yourself in a similar situation, learn from his very big mistake. First of all, you need to notify the other side and your attorney if you are unable to appear, even if it’s a true emergency. Secondly, explore options of appearing telephonically. Not all judges will allow for this, but it’s certainly worth asking and exploring, especially if you have to travel from a distance. Thirdly, if there is time to do so, ask for a different hearing date so that you can appear. Many judges will be flexible and schedule a Settlement Conference on a convenient date or time. For my out of town clients, I often ask for a Monday or Friday hearing so that they can take fewer days off of work.
One other point of interest is that the media is making a big deal that Kim Kardashian listed Kris Humphries as a witness to be called at trial. The boring explanation is that Evidence Code Section 776 allows a party to call the opposing party as a witness. In a nutshell: calling the other side as a witness is more than routine and should always be expected in a family law trial.