What exactly is the New Jersey Matrimonial Early Settlement Panel (ESP)?
Is it an opportunity to try to settle your entire divorce case quickly and fairly?
Is it an interesting name for a panel of lawyers who try to read a judge’s mind?
It is probably a little of both.
Nobody knows for sure how a particular judge would decide a specific issue in a given divorce case if the case does not settle and actually goes to trial.
On the other hand, many issues in divorce are fairly routine and can be "predicted" with a certain amount of certainty by a highly experienced New Jersey divorce lawyer.
Several months into your divorce case, the county court will schedule it for an Early Settlement Panel, known informally as an ”ESP.” This has nothing to do with"extra sensory perception!”
The Early Settlement Panel (ie. “ESP”) is a group of two lawyers assigned to your case when your divorce complaint has been filed for several months. You, your spouse, and both of your attorneys will appear before the Panel in a room at the county courthouse.
For reasons that must be other than comfort, in Monmouth County the Panel usually sits in a windowless, roughly 10 foot by 10 foot room, with a rectangular table and six chairs and four blank walls.
The two Early Settlement Panel members, or panelists, are local lawyers who either deal with divorce issues exclusively or practice a substantial amount of divorce law. Some panelists are more experienced than others. Some panelists are nicer or meaner than others. All panelists are volunteering their time to try to help you settle your case quickly, fairly, and efficiently.
The panelist normally begins by asking the person who filed for divorce, through counsel, to explain to the panelist their version of the case and how it should settle. Thereafter, the other side is given the same opportunity.
Each side is supposed to provide the panelist with a written statement as to their position in advance. The panelist rarely reads the written statement in advance, in my experience, usually because the panelists know that they are volunteering their time, and for a host of other reasons.
The case may not actually be ready to go before the panelist at the time designated. Panelists don't like to waste the time that they are graciously donating to the system by reading documents that may never be relied upon.
Once the panelist has heard from both sides, there is usually some discussion, including input from the husband and wife directly.
The parties and their attorneys are then asked to step out of the room, and the two Early Settlement Panel members discuss their particular take on both parties' positions.
The panelist then gives its recommendation as to how they feel your particular judge is likely to rule at a trial on the issues just discussed based upon the particular facts of your case.
The Early Settlement Panel is then concluded.
I have heard different judges say different percentages in terms of how effective the Matrimonial Early Settlement Panel (‘MESP”) is in resolving divorce cases. To my knowledge, no reliable study has ever been done.
However, I can say as a Monmouth County New Jersey divorce lawyer with 30 years of divorce law experience that in my experience the Early Settlement Panel has been an extremely useful tool for helping me to help my clients settle their cases.