Most people settle cases before the trial begins. Many times, settlement occurs on the trial date. This happens because trials are time-consuming, risky, and expensive. They are also unpredictable. No one can be sure how a judge or jury will decide a case, and it is often better to reach your own settlement than to allow a judge to make those choices for you.
For this reason, you should know what your bottom line is for settlement of your case. There are a number of factors to consider:
- How strong is your case?
- If money is involved, what is the most or least you could gain in a court decision, and what is the lowest amount acceptable to you?
- What alternative settlement options do you have? For example, would you rather have money or stay in your home?
- Do you have any other goals, such as repairs or better security?
It is helpful to prepare a list of your goals to write into your settlement. Include in the agreement a timeline for action by your landlord or you. The more specific you are, the better.
The heart of settlement negotiations is the willingness, on all sides, to compromise. Try and think about what the other side wants to happen, and figure out which compromises you are willing to make to resolve your case and what compromises you are not willing to make. You will feel better about the decisions you make in settlement talks if you have thought your choices through in advance.
When you negotiate, be persistent. If you feel that you are losing control of your emotions or actions, ask to take a break in order to calm down and think clearly. You are allowed to do this. You can also ask for time out if you feel the other side is losing control. Try to have a friend or someone else with you when you negotiate so that you are not alone. When you are alone it is difficult to catch everything that is happening and it is very helpful to have another set of ears and eyes. If you are feeling pressured to sign an agreement, take time out to consider what your options are. If the other party has a lawyer and you don’t, the lawyer may argue that you can’t bring a civilian with you to negotiations. That’s not true.
While you cannot have a non-lawyer represent you in court you can have a non-lawyer with you during private negotiations or mediations.
If you reach a settlement, you must put it in writing and file it with the court as a settlement. Before you sign this document, read it very carefully. Be sure you understand its terms and can carry them out. In addition, once you have signed the agreement, it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to make any changes. At the request of either party, the settlement can be enforced by the court. For more help see Booklet 10: Negotiating a Settlement of Your Case.