Where Family Law leads Civil Litigation follows
The Financial Dispute Resolution Hearing (FDR) was introduced into the Court process of financial remedy proceedings in family cases in 1996.
With the aim of assisting settlement, at the FDR the Judge indicates how they might divide the assets and income of the Parties with the hope that having received this indication from the Judge the Parties will agree a settlement. 80% of family financial remedy cases are settled at the FDR Hearing. If the case does not settle at the FDR then a different Judge is appointed to determine the issues at a final hearing.
In a recent Inheritance Act case heard in Manchester on 15 May 2015 (Seals & Anor v Williams  EWHC 1829 (Ch)) a Judge has determined that Early Neutral Evaluation can provide a similar function in civil proceedings to the FDR in family proceedings. Mr Justice Norris considers that the Civil Procedure Rules (CPR 3.1(m)) authorises the Court to "take any other step or make any other Order for the purpose of managing the case and furthering the overriding objective".
Early Neutral Evaluation allows a Judge to evaluate the Parties' cases and the strength of their evidence in the context of the law. Just as happens in the FDR the Judge appointed to undertake the Early Neutral Evaluation "the Settlement Judge" would not then continue to be involved in the case if settlement was not achieved at the Early Neutral Evaluation hearing.
Judge Norris believes that providing a provisional view is part of the Judge's function to assist the Parties in understanding the merit of their arguments and even if settlement is not achieved it may lead to a reduction in the areas of dispute. He also confirmed that the Early Neutral Evaluation process is being adopted in the Manchester and Birmingham District Registries.
No doubt other Courts will follow given that disposing of cases at an earlier point will assist with reducing pressures on the Court diary. It is to be hoped that it will also reduce costs for the Parties. As with the FDR, although an additional hearing is introduced, the Parties will have fully assessed their case and marshalled their arguments with supporting evidence at an earlier stage in the proceedings which could lead to earlier settlement thus avoiding the cost of a Final Hearing. Perhaps 20 years from now 80% of all Civil cases will be resolved at the Early Neutral Evaluation hearing?
This article is for general guidance only. It provides useful information in a concise form. Action should not be taken without obtaining specific legal advice.