Second Guessing the Judge by Gail Goodman

So you want your day in court? You feel someone is taking advantage of you and you’re entitled to see a judge. Understandable but not necessarily smart. I had a case in small claims court that illustrates that all too well. (Not that there aren’t many more cases that I could use as an example. This example extends to other types of cases that could be litigated.) The case was a landlord/tenant case. The parties initially went before the judge. The landlord, quite confidently presented his side to the judge, citing the research he used from the internet to prove his case. He didn’t doubt for a minute that he was right, until the judge corrected him on the law. As with other types of research into technical issues on the web, there is a context and additional information that professionals know, whereas the layperson is apt to misinterpret or make a decision based on partial facts. (This also applies to self-diagnosing from a medical website. Before you make plans for your funeral, check with a specialist to see if your diagnosis is correct.) The landlord was not feeling quite so confident now. The tenants also felt they had the law on their side but when the judge pressed them to at least try mediation first, they reluctantly agreed. We always explain to the parties that they can always go back before a judge, but that this is their opportunity to work out an agreement together. If they go before the judge, one party will win and one party will lose. And we mean that. A judge will not be brokering a compromise between the two parties. The judge will interpret the law and make a decision in favor of one party or the other. We started the mediation and the parties were getting to a point of realizing they could settle this dispute then and there and walk out without this resting on their heads any longer. Each party had given a little and they were getting closer to an agreement when one of the tenants got his back up over something the landlord said. Although we tried to get back on track and keep the mediation going, this tenant insisted on going back to court. We could not get them back on track. Since mediation is a voluntary process, they returned to court. The tenant was so convinced that he could predict what the judge would do. He was so certain that since the judge had corrected the landlord on the law that the judge would rule in favor of the tenant. He was wrong. While the landlord had made an incorrect assessment of the law, he was, on the whole, in the right. Where just a short while before the tenants would have walked away with an agreement that would have assured them some compensation, they were now leaving the court without anything to show for it except for the money they had shelled out for the court costs.

We see this all the time with family conflicts, such as those where adult siblings are arguing over an estate or Power of Attorney. That sense of certainty about being right often leads people to take a gamble that may not only cost them financially but will also jeopardize family relationships. When we’re in the midst of a conflict, it’s easy to maintain that we have God on our side but the reality is, our perspective is limited and flawed. The judge has the advantage of knowing the law and not being the least bit emotional about it.

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