I had been dealing with a longstanding family finance case. Husband and wife had almost reached agreement on what to do with the joint assets following separation.
Then tragedy struck; the husband died.
Acting for the wife, and in discussion with my instructing solicitor, we agreed to pursue a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 (“the Inheritance Act”).
Whilst, generally speaking, the division of assets in a matrimonial finance case is a matter between two spouses, once we move to the realm of the Inheritance Act, often other potential claimants can appear. For example, a long lost child who is in the care system in another part of the country, as happened here.
The case in question went from a straightforward exercise to a complex matter involving in solicitors, barristers, social workers, local authority legal departments, and hundreds of miles between the parties. How best to deal with it?
The obvious solution, and indeed something that is expected of the parties under the current Civil Procedure Rules, is to make use of alternative dispute resolution. In this case, a roundtable meeting was the preferred option.
A roundtable meeting is exactly as the name suggests: a gathering of the parties and their representatives around a table. The actual setup and format of such a meeting is entirely up to the parties.
One option is for all parties to be in a large, boardroom table style room, and negotiate together.
Another option, and often preferred by lawyers, is to arrange for each party to have a separate room, as well as an additional neutral room which can be used for discussions between the parties/legal representatives.
Unlike the formality of court where the behaviour of the parties is governed by lengthy and detailed procedural rules, a roundtable meeting is much more flexible. The entire raison d’être of a roundtable meeting is that it is the parties rather than a judge or tribunal who control the process throughout the day.
The parties may agree that all discussions are without prejudice, to encourage open and frank discussions. There is no waiting around for a case to be called into court, and breaks can be taken as often as required by any of the parties.
The Jackson reforms to civil procedure increasingly favour the use of alternative dispute resolution.
However, still only a small percentage of cases that straddle the border of family finance/probate make use of the roundtable meeting.
As time goes by we are likely to see the use of this type of alternative dispute resolution increase. It is an opportunity for the parties to start and end negotiations in one day of intense discussions.
As there is no formal procedure to follow in a roundtable meeting, there is an obvious opportunity for legal representatives to assist their client.
A bundle of papers/documents can be prepared as though for a court hearing, and counsel experienced in negotiation, such as one of the members of Becket Chambers, can be instructed to attend the meeting and try to negotiate a settlement.
Even if it is not possible to reach a complete agreement by the end of a roundtable meeting, usually there are two successful outcomes:
Firstly, the parties are able to narrow the issues. If it does become necessary to go to court, or to return to court, after a roundtable meeting the parties will usually have a much better understanding of which points really are in dispute. This can focus the minds of the parties, and enable any legal representatives to reduce the costs of litigation.
Secondly, the parties can satisfy the requirements of the court to consider alternative dispute resolution. I have known parties in court be criticised for not attempting to negotiate/reach settlement, and it has become more and more common for courts to stay proceedings whilst the parties explore alternative dispute resolution.
If you have a case that you think would benefit from a roundtable meeting, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.