What is the MESP?
The Matrimonial Early Settlement Panel ("MESP") is a mandatory program run by the court for all divorce cases that are not settled by a particular date. The program was designed to avoid delays in the court system and to foster settlements. The panelists are experienced matrimonial attorneys who practice in the county where they serve. The panelists are coordinated with the County Bar Association and are not paid for their service. Arrangements can be made to avoid any conflict with a particular panelist.
Each county has their own procedure as to the scheduling of the MESP, the number of panelists and the mechanics of filing your paperwork. But, generally all panels work the same way. At some point your case will be scheduled for the panel. Both litigants and their attorneys are to appear in court for the panel. In advance of the MESP each side must prepare a memorandum outlining their respective positions and an updated Case Information Statement. These materials are presented to the panelists for their review.
The panel will meet with the attorneys (and sometimes the litigants as well) to discuss your case. At the conclusion of the meeting the panelists present their recommendations to assist with settling your case. The attorneys will discuss the recommendations with their clients to see if there is any common ground toward reaching a settlement. Regardless of the outcome, the attorneys will meet with the judge to manage the next aspect of your case. In the event that a full agreement can be reached, this agreement can be placed on the record in the courtroom and you can be divorced. Or, a later court date will be scheduled to finalize the divorce to afford time to prepare a written settlement agreement. If your case is not settled then the judge will assign your next court date. Possible options include mediation, scheduling a trial date, or some other mechanism to move your matter forward.
There are three key points to takeaway from this discussion about the MESP. First, the recommendations of the panelists are just that- recommendations. The panelists are not sitting as judges or arbitrators or mediators. Their recommendation is not binding nor is it shared with the judge assigned to your case. The panelists are there to help you to decide what to do with your case; not to decide your case.
Second, many litigants allow the panel recommendations to control ongoing settlement negotiations. For example, if someone received a very favorable recommendation they may then refuse to consider any other settlement options that may differ from the recommendation. That may be a mistake. Just because a panel saw the case a particular way does not necessarily mean that a judge will decide it the same exact way.
Third, while there is a push by the Court to resolve cases, even if an agreement is reached at the MESP it is probably a good idea in the majority of cases to prepare a written agreement and return to court rather than finalizing the divorce at the MESP.
All of the attorneys at Domers & Bonamassa are well versed and have years of experience addressing family law issues, no matter how complicated. Contact us today at (856) 596-2888 for a private consultation. We appear in the following counties: Burlington, Camden, Gloucester, Cumberland, Salem, Mercer, Ocean, Atlantic and Cape May. Our practice areas include: divorce, custody, parenting time, child support, alimony, domestic violence, college expenses, equitable distribution, name changes, step parent adoptions, paternity issues, child abuse and neglect, prenuptial agreements, mediation and arbitration.
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