More than 95% of the cases we handle settle short of trial. When custody issues are involved, many of our clients participate in a process known as social early neutral evaluation – an SENE.
In a social early neutral evaluation, the lawyers and clients will meet with a pair of evaluators. These individuals are usually social workers, custody evaluators, or experienced family law practitioners. The team will consist of one male and one female, to avoid the perception of gender bias.
Most social early neutral evaluation sessions are approximately three hours long.
During the first hour, the parties themselves do most of the talking. The evaluators want to hear from each side. Issues such as physical custody, legal custody and parenting time are discussed. The role of the lawyers during this part of the process is typically rather limited, as the evaluators want to absorb information directly from the litigants.
During the second hour, the evaluators do the hard work. Once the evaluators have heard from the parties, and asked all of the questions that need answering, they will break and discuss the matter privately. This part of the ENE typically takes about 30 minutes. During this time, the parties are usually separated.
Next the parties, the lawyers, and the evaluators come back together, and the opinions of the evaluators are expressed. The opinions of evaluators are nonbinding, but provide some insight into what two qualified individuals believe the likely outcome will be if the matter proceeds to trial. The opinions of the evaluators will not become known to the judge.
Once evaluators have provided their thoughts, the third hour of the session occurs. During this third hour, the parties separate, and negotiation begins. Some, or all, of the relevant issues may be discussed, such holiday schedules, routine access schedules, summer vacation time and non-school days.
About 75% of the time, a settlement will be reached. If the settlement is reached, the terms of the settlement are put into a memo, which is then forwarded to the judge. Assuming the court approves of the agreement, the agreement will be incorporated into the final divorce decree.
Because of the success of this type of forum, many counties have now adopted the social early neutral evaluation model. Some (like Anoka County) call it a custody parenting time early neutral evaluation, or CPENE, where Hennepin County uses the SENE label.