Family Law Litigants in Contra Costa County get Meaningful Alternative Dispute Resolution Opportunity Through the Double Pro Per Settlement Conference Calendar
Approximately two hundred thousand divorce petitions are filed annually in California. Seventy percent of those cases involve at least one self-represented litigant at the beginning of the case. That figure increases to 80 percent by the time of judgment. 
With so many unrepresented litigants, and in the face of ever-shrinking court budgets, judges and attorneys are challenged to find ways to offer dispute resolution services that aid the public, as well as free up much needed time on crowded court trial dockets.
For several years the Family Law Section of the Contra Costa County Bar Association has provided volunteer attorneys to staff the Double Pro Per Settlement Conference Calendar. Each of the five family law departments has a monthly settlement conference date, at which a volunteer attorney works with self represented litigants to settle cases, assist in the preparation of paperwork, and generally to provide an overview of the court process should either party decide they would prefer to go to trial.
It has been this writer’s experience that the litigants on this calendar do not want to go to trial. They would love to be done, but for that one issue that keeps the parties from concluding the process. Sometimes it’s a pension and how to divide it. Other times it’s a car, or a debt, or a student loan issue. The resolution can lie in a simple explanation of a pertinent statute, the discussion of when an asset or debt was acquired, or a reasonable discussion about what one party is willing to trade the other, in exchange for a resolution. The over-riding theme of all of the settlement conferences I’ve attended is that people are generally willing to give something to get something, want to be heard and treated with respect, and just need a little help to get them through the system.
My hat goes off to all of the volunteer attorneys who staff this program. During these tough economic times it is hard for attorneys (generally solo practitioners in family law) to be away from the offices, and the volunteer attorneys on this program devote an entire afternoon to this worthy ADR process. And for those attorneys (of which there are several) who go the extra mile and continue on a pro bono basis to assist parties after they leave the settlement conference, you truly are the pro bono background of our community.
Dana L. Santos is a Certified Family Law Specialist, practicing in Contra Costa County for 12 years. She coordinates the Double Pro Per Settlement Conference Calendar, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 California Law Review, Bonnie Hough, citing Judicial Council of California, Statewide Action Plan for Serving Self-Represented Litigants 2 (2004), available at http://www.courtinfo.ca.gov/programs/cfcc/pdffiles/Full_Report_comment_chart.pdf.