Attorneys practicing in all areas of law are often asked by clients for ways to reduce cost and increase efficiency. In Family Law, clients often are concerned about both the financial and emotional costs of Dissolution of Marriage or Allocation of Parental Responsibilities cases. As attorneys, we are therefore constantly searching for new and different ways to assist clients in this quest, and we talk to their clients about mediation, arbitration, and other forms of Alternative Dispute Resolution. With the addition of Early Neutral Assessment (ENA), a fairly new program in the Denver Metro area and across the state, Family Law attorneys now have another great option to offer their clients who are seeking Alternative Dispute Resolution.
What is Early Neutral Assessment?
ENA is a form of Alternative Dispute Resolution for cases involving an allocation of parental responsibilities dispute. It was originally developed in Hennepin County in Minnesota and was then adopted in Colorado by Adams County, then Denver County, and most other counties now offer the service. Clients must opt into ENA and once they do so, they meet with a two-member team, which is comprised of one male and one female, and one mental health provider and one attorney. During the process, the two team members give clients feedback as to what is likely to occur if they take the case to a hearing, as well as educate the clients about child development and the child’s best interests from their point of view. After this step, clients have a chance to mediate and come to an agreement. Clients are not bound by the feedback they receive from the team members, so they retain full control over the outcome.
What are the benefits of Early Neutral Assessment?
Early Neutral Assessment offers clients a way to keep their financial and emotional costs lower; is less expensive than hiring a Child and Family Investigator (typically about $400 per party); helps clients retain control of their case; and can help clients foster a better co-parenting relationship in the future. Further, the data that the Office of Dispute Resolution (ODR) is tracking is encouraging: so far 70% of the ODR ENA cases have been fully resolved, 9% reached a partial agreement, 12% reached a proposal, and only 9% reached no agreement. Additionally, it’s important to note that attorneys can attend ENA; many districts have Spanish-speaking teams; and ENA can be either private or state paid, if clients qualify.
Are there any drawbacks to Early Neutral Assessment?
The first key to success with ENA is having willing participants; if your client does not want to use ENA, it is unlikely to be successful. Second, since this is a relatively new program, the state and individual districts are still measuring the success of the program. For example, they are measuring how many cases that are referred to ENA end up having a CFI or PRE appointed after ENA and whether the agreements are holding up (i.e. are the parties filing new motions regarding the children within six months of the ENA resolution?). Like any form of Alternative Dispute Resolution, not all clients are suited for Early Neutral Assessment, and it is important to remember that this is not a cure-all, but simply another tool to offer to your clients.