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Early Neutral Evaluation (ENE): What Is It? How Does It Work?

What is early neutral evaluation?

Early neutral evaluation is a process for identifying the issues in a dispute, exploring settlement options, and evaluating the merits of the claims.

Minnesota’s State Supreme Court Rule 114 defines ENE as:

“...a forum in which attorneys present the core of the dispute to a neutral evaluator in the presence of the parties. This occurs after the case is filed but before discovery is conducted. The neutral then gives an assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the case. If settlement does not result, the neutral helps narrow the dispute and suggests guidelines for managing discovery.”

The goal of early neutral evaluation is to improve communication between disputing parties and provide a “reality check” for everyone involved. During this process, a neutral expert assesses the merits of the case and works with each party involved to come to a clear understanding of the central issues in the dispute.

The process of ENE is confidential and non-binding, which means that the neutral evaluator cannot force either party into a decision. Everything discussed during this process remains private.

If the parties come to a resolution at the end of the ENE processes, they can put their agreement in writing and submit it to the court for approval. When the court approves the agreement, the case ends and the agreement becomes a court order. If the parties do not come to an agreement from the evaluation, the case then moves forward in the normal legal process.

When to use early neutral evaluation in family law?

In family law cases, ENE is most commonly associated with:

  • custody agreements
  • parenting time disputes
  • child support
  • divorce related issues

ENE can help you and your ex-partner or spouse come to a faster, less expensive, and mutually acceptable agreement despite the stressful situation you are faced with.

Emotions run high and every detail can become a point of contention during a divorce or child custody battle. ENE can be a much needed reality check. Family law cases often require difficult compromises. An expert neutral evaluator can help you determine what the most important issues of the dispute are and how these issues can best be settled.

During evaluation of custody and parenting time disputes, most courts require the use of two evaluators—one man and one woman. Other family law disputes over child support, spousal issues, and property issues are typically handled by one evaluator.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of early neutral evaluation?

The key advantages of early neutral evaluation include:

The disadvantages associated with early neutral evaluation include:

Advantages

Encouragement to Settle

There’s no question that divorce and child custody cases are especially stressful. Not only is this an unusual time of dramatic change, it can also be expensive. ENE has the potential to save time, money and stress.

If ENE is successful, there is no reason to proceed further in the legal process. Your attorney’s fees will be lower. The process of early neutral evaluation can lead to an agreement much faster than it takes to work out the issues of a case before a judge.

One survey indicated that over half of those who used a neutral evaluator found the ENE process improved their prospects for settling.

Focus

Focusing on the most important parts of a family law case can be difficult due to the intensely personal nature of the issues at stake. A third-party neutral evaluator can provide much needed clarity on what each party cares about.

The survey above also found that 62% of parties who used ENE gained new insights about the case through this process.

By helping both parties come to a better understanding of their priorities, ENE can lead to an effective agreement.

Voluntary

The voluntary nature of early neutral evaluation is a key component to its success. No one is required to use this form of alternative dispute resolution (ADR), and the findings of this process are non-binding. This means that if either party isn’t prepared to settle at the end of ENE, they are not required to do so.

Often times ENE leads to clarity in the case. Even if a settlement is not reached, the court proceedings are easier and faster, thanks to the perspective gained during ENE.

Confidentiality

Early neutral evaluation is confidential. The private lives of the parties involved won’t be brought to into public view during ENE, and nothing said during evaluation is shared in court.

For parties who have public interests to protect, like business or careers in public service, ENE can help keep the divorce or custody agreement process private. ENE also allows parties to speak freely without fear of losing leverage in the case.

The openness of ENE can lead to better understanding of the other parties point of view and create lines of communication leading to resolution.

Neutrality

Many attorneys and their clients have found that the neutral opinion of a third party adds tremendous value to their understanding of a divorce or child custody case. Since this process is so emotional for many people, a third party provides a helpful perspective on the key issues of the case.

Disadvantages

An Extra Step

Many court systems around the country strongly encourage some form of alternative dispute resolution. When the early neutral evaluation is unable to produce a settlement that can be agreed upon by both parties, it can feel like an unnecessary step in the process that adds time and stress to an already difficult situation.

Added Costs

In situations where a case can’t be resolved following the early neutral evaluation process, legal fees will continue to grow as the case moves to court. Because ENE is a voluntary process, success is not guaranteed.

Thankfully, most parties who enter into an evaluation find that, if ENE doesn’t completely resolve the case, it does bring clarity. This clarity leads to less litigation and faster resolution than if the family law case had gone immediately to the courtroom.

A Refusal to Settle

In some cases, the neutral evaluator may come to a conclusion that clearly favors one party. That party will then refuse to compromise requiring the case to be brought before a judge. Accordingly, ENE is best when both parties are willing to speak openly and consider compromises.

If you’re looking for an effective way to settle a divorce, child custody or other challenging family dispute, early neutral evaluation may be a great way for you and the other party to gain clarity, save money, and come to an agreement acceptable for everyone.

Gjesdahl Law’s attorneys are dedicated to serving families in crisis by providing you with competent legal counsel and making sure every cost and stress-saving option is available for you. Contact us today to learn how we can help your family in North Dakota or Minnesota.

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Christel A. Croxen

Christel joined Gjesdahl Law, P.C. in 2015, after clerking for two years with the Cass County District Court. She focuses primarily on divorce and post-judgment issues, patern…
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