On 1 December 2016 the Family Justice Council held its 10th Annual Debate, ‘Settlement conferences: are they Article 8 compliant?’ in London.
The December issue of Family Law features an article on settlement conferencing by Shelley Hounsell-Gray, the managing lawyer in the organisation in Nova Scotia, Canada which directly employs lawyers who act for parents in child protection proceedings. Shelley also acts for parents in such proceedings.
The Honourable Justice R James Williams spearheaded the introduction and evolution of the settlement conference process in child protection proceedings at the Supreme Court (Family Division) in Halifax. This court has 12 specialised family law judges and serves the largest city in Nova Scotia, with a population of about 400,000.
Shelley begins with a brief explanation of a child protection proceeding before the court and the settlement conference process as it is practised at the Supreme Court (Family Division) in Halifax. She identifies occasions when the settlement conference process is used and the general procedure for the process. She explains why parents’ lawyers seek out the process on a regular basis and how the child’s voice is received. She then suggests training which might assist lawyers and judges. Finally, she concludes with a brief discussion of how the settlement conference process can improve ‘access to justice’ for parents and children. The article includes:
• A few examples of issues discussed at a settlement conference
• The settlement conference
– Scheduling and pre-conference action items
– Process and expectations during the settlement conference
– The conclusion of the settlement conference
• Why do parents’ lawyers utilise the settlement conference process on a regular basis?
• The child’s voice
• Training for lawyers and competency
• Judicial training and competency
• The influence of settlement conferencing on ‘access to justice’
Shelley Hounsell-Gray insists that competent, well trained, judges are key to ensure the settlement conference process is just and its outcomes consistent with the law, the interests of the child and his or her family:
‘Unassertive, poorly trained and ill-informed judges can have a negative impact on the settlement conference process and ultimately the outcome of the proceeding. This can lead to devastating results that are inconsistent with the best interests of the child. However, this concern may be addressed with the implementation of training, standards and selection of those who are competent and favourably disposed to lead a child protection settlement conference.’