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New mediation requirement in family law cases to start March 1

February 25, 2021

The Iowa Judicial Branch website now has procedures that explain family law mediation and links to the required forms for each of the state’s eight judicial districts. The information is available following a July 2020 Iowa Supreme Court order requiring the judicial districts to establish or continue procedures for mandatory mediation or mandatory judicial settlement conferences in all family law cases where at least one party is represented by an attorney. The supreme court ordered that the district plans be implemented by March 1, 2021.

Mandatory mediation was recommended by the Jumpstart Family Law Trial Task Force, created in May 2020 to develop temporary policies and procedures for family law trials resuming following the COVID-19 postponements.

“Family law, typically divorce or child custody cases, can be very challenging for someone without an attorney and can take some time to work through the courts,” Justice Thomas Waterman, co-chair of the task force, said. “Since the COVID-19 slowdown, family law cases are now facing delays of multiple months or a year or more before they go to trial. Mediation has been proven effective and settles many cases entirely and narrows the issues in others, thereby reducing the time required for trial."

Family law mediation is designed to narrow the scope of the case and ensure focus is placed on the relevant issues. After the mediation is complete, an attorney, or party must submit a mediation report to the district court. The report will identify the remaining legal issues, summarize each party’s position on all issues, and briefly state factual disputes. The mandatory mediation requirement does not apply to child support recovery initiated cases.

“We’ve heard from attorneys and their clients from around the state that mediation is a much less stressful way for them to resolve disputes related to divorce and custody issues,” Stacey Warren, Des Moines attorney and task force co-chair, said. “This new mediation requirement means people involved in family law cases have the opportunity to work with a trained mediator to help them reach agreements on the issues that they care about most outside of the courtroom. These mediated solutions not only help reduce stress for families but also typically mean a case will be resolved more quickly and at less expense.”

Parties, and in most cases their attorneys, will meet with a mediator at least one time to help clarify the issues, discuss options, and reach agreements tailored to their family’s particular interests. Mediation must be scheduled within 90 days after the service of the original notice and petition and must be completed within 120 days.  

The supreme court provided a waiver to Judicial District 7 (Cedar, Clinton, Jackson, Muscatine, and Scott counties) to continue the judge-led settlement conferences prior to trial in lieu of mediation. A judge-led settlement conference is an opportunity for the parties in a case to discuss issues while meeting with a judge.  The settlement conference judge will not preside over the trial in their case if a trial is still required, but will allow the parties to present their side of any contested issues and advise the parties of the law and considerations a court must consider in rendering a decision at a trial. The settlement conference judge will offer suggestions for the parties to consider in reaching an agreement on contested issues.

A statewide list of approved mediators who may conduct mediations in any county throughout the state is posted on the judicial branch website to help parties successfully meet the timeline requirements. The statewide list, procedures, and forms are on each judicial district web page under the link “Family Law Mediation.” You can reach each district court page from the “District Courts” page of the website.

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