What Happens at a Family Court Pre-Trial?
A pre-trial (sometimes called a status conference) is a required hearing before the family court will set a case for a contested trial that is going to take more than a certain length of time (two hours to a half day depending on the county).
A party typically requests a pre-trial hearing for three reasons: 1) he or she perceives the other party is unwilling to settle the case on reasonable terms and wants a trial date set in order to force the other party to weigh the risks of trial versus settlement; 2) the case is ready to be tried and the parties have been unable to resolve their dispute by agreement or 3) the case is subject to dismissal for being 365 days old and a pre-trial is required to prevent dismissal.
Pre-trials are governed by the procedures of Rule 16, SCRCP, though family court pre-trials are not as formal and do not require the briefs that are required in circuit court. At a pre-trial the administrative judge will issue an order dealing with the procedural issues in the case but will only issue an order resolving substantive issues if the parties agree on these substantive issues.
The pre-trial judge may authorize amendments to the pleadings, determine what issues are still contested, see if the parties can reach agreement on any of the contested issues [often allowing the parties to engage in settlement discussions while that judge handles other matters], place deadlines on written discovery and depositions, require the parties to provide each other written settlement proposals [which can be viewed by the trial judge in determining an award of attorney’s fees after the trial judge has decided the other contested issues], and require the parties to engage in mediation before setting the case for trial. If the pre-trial judge determines the case is ready for trial, that judge can provide the parties stand-by dates for trial [dates in which the case will go to trial if a case or cases ahead of it settle] and day-certain dates for trial [with the case definitely being tried that date if it hasn’t settled or tried prior to that date].
Family court litigants often want substantive relief at pre-trials. As pre-trials deal with the procedures of getting a dispute ready for trial and setting the case for trial, they are not vehicles for resolving contested substantive issues. A party wishing to resolve substantive issues at the pre-trial must reach agreement with the opposing party on those issues. Otherwise, unless there is a change of circumstances prior to trial, he or she will need to wait for trial or subsequent settlement to obtain substantive relief.