When a marriage dissolution case is first filed with the court, most metro area Minnesota courts schedule the case for an Initial Case Management Conference (ICMC). This is a non-contested, non-litigious step in the process that gives the parties an opportunity to meet with a family court judge or referee – in most cases, the judge or referee who will preside over the case from start to finish.
The parties and the court determine at the ICMC how the parties will proceed with the case, including efforts to settle the contested issues of the case outside of court. The ICMC model was developed in recent years to overcome poor patterns of case management and even poorer patterns of parties’ conduct in court. The ICMC model encourages the parties to be cooperative, and less combative, when dealing with child custody and co-parenting issues, and financial issues.
When the ICMC model was devised, it was contemplated that the ICMC would take place within two or three weeks of filing the case. One reason for that time frame is the potential for the parties to have contested issues that need to be addressed by the court. Until the court holds an ICMC, the parties are typically unable to obtain any relief from the court except by agreement of the parties, unless the moving party can show urgent need for relief in an emergency.
Some courts are able to meet that timing standard, and others fall short but are able to proceed with the ICMC within one month. Unfortunately, in some instances, the courts are unable to come close to the intended time frame for the ICMC.
For example, last month, I learned from a colleague that their case was blocked to one of the metro area judges who proceeds with an ICMC only upon request. That is to say, this judge will allow parties to proceed with contested hearings right away, unless the parties jointly request the scheduling of an ICMC. In mid-May, the parties requested an ICMC, and the first available date for the ICMC was… August.
This is very telling. A judge’s calendar so clogged with contested hearings that the judge cannot accommodate an ICMC for more than two months. Many of the contested hearings clogging the court’s calendar might be avoided by bringing the parties before the court for an ICMC.
I do not mean to ignore the constant challenge the family courts face trying to handle the heavy, steady flow of cases. But the failure to provide for timely ICMC’s only perpetuates the court’s overflowing dockets. Conversely, when courts are attentive to providing for timely ICMC’s, the courts are maximizing the chances that new cases will proceed, for the most part, outside of the courtroom.
In sum, if the family courts are overwhelmed by their case load, they need to consider what an effective remedy timely Initial Case Management Conferences are.