Before your court trial starts, it may sound a little ominous to hear your attorney talk about a status hearing. Seriously, don't you have enough hearings to look forward to? In a world of jargon and often baffling legalese, it's easy to get caught up in terms that make you feel like you're in over your head, but in this case, a status hearing is a refreshingly simple endeavor. Fear not – the status hearing, whether it's to do with a criminal or a civil case, is actually a fairly casual courthouse proceeding that allows attorneys and judges to check in with each other before a trial begins.
Status Hearings: The Basics
Due to the hearing's relatively informal nature, you're bound to hear lawyers, judges and courthouse staff call status hearings by all kinds of different names. These synonyms include status conference, status date, pre-try, pretrial hearing and pretrial conference. Some states define a pretrial hearing and a pretrial conference differently, though, where a pretrial conference is generally considered the very first pretrial meeting, and the pretrial hearing refers to any meetings after that. Other jurisdictions use the terms interchangeably. Although the names are swappable, the purpose, function and general format of a status hearing remains the same across both civil and criminal cases. Attorney Tyson Mutrux of Mutrux Firm Injury Lawyers breaks it down:
"Now, if you have a civil case or criminal case, you may hear your attorney talk about 'we have a status conference coming up.' All that really is, is for the attorneys to confer with each other – whether it's the prosecutor and the defense attorney or opposing counsel in a civil case – just talking about what's going on with the case and what needs to happen going forward. And they usually convey that to the judge. Not much happens at these. Motions are not normally heard, they just talk about the case."
Speaking to the Avvo community, divorce and separation lawyer Lee Alan Thompson is even more concise on the topic of the pretrial meeting: "It keeps the case moving."
How the Pretrial Conference Starts
Call it what you will, the pretrial conference can start in a whole bunch of different ways. In many state courts, these meetings are mandatory, but a judge can also request a status hearing even if not required. Alternatively, one attorney may request to meet with another attorney regarding the status of a case they're both working on. Most commonly, though, attorneys will meet with a judge present.
Often, courts impose a cooling-off period before a status conference can be called, so all parties usually have about a 60-day heads-up to prepare for the meeting. If one or either of the parties find the planned date for the status hearing inconvenient, they can request that the meeting be postponed with the court's permission.
Although the average status conference is called to assess the progress of a case on its way to trial, some status hearings have a handy secondary purpose. As federal crime lawyer Humberto Yzaguirre, Jr., explains to Avvo, "If the defendant is out on bond, [the status hearing] is a way for the judge to make sure the defendant is complying with the bond conditions."
Read More: What Happens at a Judgment Pretrial Conference?
The Status Meeting: What Happens?
When a judge requests a status hearing, she typically wants to get a feel for how the case is progressing. It's all in the name – she just wants to know the status of the case, typically from the mouths of the attorneys involved. Apart from the attorneys and judge, the plaintiff and defendant are typically called to the meeting, though additional parties, such as unrepresented persons, may also be included.
At the meeting, the parties involved discuss if there are any preliminary issues that might potentially affect the case. Many status hearings focus on discussing the schedule for case-related events moving forward. In fact, one of the most important functions of a status hearing is to lay out the case's progress and set a timeline for discovery matters and the trial date itself. It's here that all parties involved have the opportunity to resolve any lingering discovery disputes before appearing in the courtroom.
In an effort to fill in the judge on the readiness of the case, the lawyers may inform the judge as to up-to-date settlement negotiations; the estimated length of the upcoming trial; what discovery has already been conducted; if a settlement has been attempted or is in progress; and any other pertinent details. In response, the judge may pose questions to learn more about the case or offer some initial impressions. The judge may also inquire about whether or not the defense attorney and the district attorney have met regarding any potential plea deals in criminal matters. It's possible for one of the parties to put a plea deal or offer of settlement on the table during the actual status hearing.
It's common for parties at the status hearing to discuss outstanding discovery issues or consider the need for motions, such as excluding specific pieces of evidence; changing the trial's venue; allowing or preventing certain witness testimonies; suppressing a defendant's confession or statement; compelling the opposing part to release evidence; or even dismissing the case completely.
The judge often issues an immediate response to the issues raised, right there on-the-spot during the pretrial meeting. This can include the granting or denying of any motions presented. Likewise, she may choose to schedule dates for pretrial motions, discovery deadlines or the trial itself. At this time, the judge may decide to reserve certain issues brought up at the status hearing for the trial itself. If deemed necessary to resolve any issues still outstanding at the end of the status conference, the parties may set another date for a later follow-up status hearing – in fact, it's not unusual for a case to see one to three status conferences before it's concluded or proceeds to trial.
The Pre-Conference Report
Before the meeting itself, it's common practice to have a pre-conference status report drawn up and filed with the court. This document aims to bring the involved parties up to speed and provides some general bullet points for topics to be discussed or questions to be asked. While there's no standard template for the pre-conference report in civil courts, you can expect most of these documents to contain some basic categories of info. Take a look at some of the sections you might find in the report and details those sections contain:
- The nature of the case: This includes the basis for jurisdiction, whether or not all necessary parties have been named and served, the general nature of the claims, the relief sought by the plaintiff and whether a jury trial is requested. Additionally, it lists the probable length of the trial and the earliest reasonable trial date.
- Pending motions: Here, the document lists the nature of any motions that are currently pending or anticipated.
- Case plan: The case plan often includes a proposed discovery timeline, including the types of discovery needed; dates for disclosures; dates to issue written discovery and completion dates for fact discovery; expert discovery; serving expert reports; and filing dispositive motions. This is the section that typically includes details regarding electronic stored information pertaining to the case, if any.
- Settlement discussions: This section describes whether settlement discussions have occurred and discloses the status of those discussions, if any. It may also indicate whether the parties see any value in a settlement conference.
Status Conference Results
More than likely, a status hearing won't rock the legal world of the case to which it pertains. Normally, it serves as little more than a report that results in either assuaging a judge or attorney's curiosity or making small changes to the proceedings moving forward, based on new information presented in the status report.
In some cases, a judge may request a delay of the trial date based on what's brought up at a status hearing. For example, an attorney may reveal the need for more time to prepare with the client, or perhaps the judge is informed that a key witness won't be available on the original court date. In this case, the judge may issue a continuance, which is fancy legal speak for a postponement of the court date. Similarly, if a plea deal or settlement has been offered during the status hearing, the case may be taken off the trial docket altogether.
If the parties at the status conference determine that certain issues may affect the case by impeding its progress, they may choose to place different case-related events on track, which basically means a schedule of different deadlines related to the case. For example, the parties may set a track for a discovery deadline, a report deadline or a motion deadline. If the meeting reveals that discovery deadlines have not been met, the judge may deem that neither side is required to answer any further discovery requests until the previous discovery has been completed in full.
As litigation lawyer Fred T. Isquith writes on Avvo, "A status hearing is exactly that: There may be nothing for the court to decide. However, the court wants to know what the parties are doing in the case and what their plans are. Usually, the goal is to make sure that the case is moving towards resolution or trial." If that case is indeed progressing toward resolution or trial, it's very possible that no additional action will be needed on the road to the courtroom.
Status Hearings in Civil Cases
The jurisdiction of the court doesn't affect the structure of a status hearing, but the type of case in question naturally affects its contents. In a divorce trial, as an example, the parties may inform the court that property division remains unresolved while child custody has been agreed upon. This information enables the court to focus on the subject of property division and how a relevant agreement might be reached, including possible avenues of resolution outside of a court trial. Status conferences also aim to set the bounds of the topics covered by the trial, so in a no-fault divorce case, this meeting will establish that issues such as extramarital affairs are generally not to be covered.
Especially in civil cases, the judge may even offer a court-ordered mediation process, which can come with or without court-provided assistance. At this time, the court also sets dates or deadlines for such alternative dispute resolutions.
A status hearing is basically just what it sounds like – a check-in meeting on the status of a case that happens before a trial.
As a freelance writer and small business owner with a decade of experience, Dan has contributed legal- and finance-oriented content to diverse sources including Chron, Fortune, Zacks.com, Motley Fool and MSN Money, among others.