Having to go to court is the pits. You lose work -- and sleep -- and you have no guarantees. Many people see the inside of a courthouse, not on serious criminal charges, but because of a local ordinance violation or civil matter concerning a will or family issue. In these cases, “stipulatio juris” -- a stipulated judgment -- may provide the means to settle matters amicably without the anxiety and expense of a trial.
When you agree to a settlement, legal types call it a stipulation. You might agree to certain facts or outcomes -- and the other side does the same. Your attorneys will draw up a document summarizing the agreements and offers of each party, and have each party sign it. The agreement goes to the judge responsible for concluding the case, who must approve the agreement before taking the case off the court’s schedule, known as the docket. Once approved, the agreement has the same legal force as a contract. Stipulated judgments are also known as stipulated dispositions or consent orders.
Stipulated judgments may solve disputes, such as in divorce proceedings, child custody disputes or even neighborhood arguments that blow up into lawsuits. In these situations, stipulated agreements can avoid painful or embarrassing proceedings in public. In criminal cases, a prosecutor may offer to modify a charge to a lesser one based upon mitigating circumstances or weak evidence. A common stipulation in city or county courts might amend a speeding ticket for a first-time offense down to a less serious charge to produce a reduction in demerit points, reduced fine or delay of judgment with a future possible dismissal.
In civil cases, lawyers hammer out what each client wants, then meet to work out a set of stipulations that both parties can accept. In criminal or forfeiture cases, the prosecuting attorney meets with the defendant and his attorney to make an offer to reach a stipulated disposition to be presented to the court. Look for an offer to meet to discuss a stipulated settlement either during or following the pre-trial period when motions are made to dismiss or admit evidence or other considerations -- but before the actual trial begins.
Making it Stick
Any stipulation agreement becomes binding only when a judge or other appointed court official approves it. State and federal court systems all have their individual rules, but many courts allow appeals only when an issue has gone to trial -- which means that you need to know what you can or can’t do if the conditions you’ve agreed to don’t work out. Remember too that judges respond differently to stipulations. Some see them as time- and money-saving tools but others might think that the prosecutor is a soft-sell or the case merits a trial. Only an attorney can advise you as to what might result from the admissions and agreements you make, so don’t depend on a friend’s experience, your own ideas of fairness or general advice from media sources when entering into a stipulated judgment.
An avid perennial gardener and old house owner, Laura Reynolds has had careers in teaching and juvenile justice. A retired municipal judgem Reynolds holds a degree in communications from Northern Illinois University. Her six children and stepchildren served as subjects of editorials during her tenure as a local newspaper editor.