Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Law Lessons

Were the Jamestown Lawyer truly creative, I'd be working on a booklet of witty legal aphorisms to advise and inform. I'd like to take a page from that hypothetical book and explain, in basic terms, something that comes up over and over about our legal system:

Anyone can sue anyone else for anything.

It's not as witty or pithy as I'd like it to be, but in a way it sums up the answer to a question I get way too often from friends and clients. Quite often it is after the usual forward of frivolous lawsuits (most of which never were actually filed anywhere) goes around and people get up in arms.

I'm not trying to say we aren't an overly litigious society. I firmly believe that common sense needs to be applied to every lawsuit, even those filed for legitimate reasons. That said, the Jamestown Lawyer would like everyone to realize that the court system is not an exclusive nightclub with a velvet rope and a bouncer at the door.

The check on whether cases have merit occurs, in most cases, once they are filed. Court staff can turn away the truly frivolous, but are unwise to do so except in very clear situations since it opens them to civil rights liability for denying access to the courts. The system is designed in a way that a person is able to make his/her claim of how he/she has been wronged and it then falls on the other side to address why the case has no merit. In an instance where a case has zero merit, there are fines and disciplinary sanctions. Quite often the person bringing the case will then be responsible for the defendant's legal fees. Overall, it is a system geared toward protecting the rights of those who have been wronged, who get a chance to put the issue before a court. The court may agree with the opposing party that there is no claim, or perhaps there may be a claim where nothing can be done, but the allegedly wronged person has a right to present those claims.

I am not writing from the perspective of a plaintiff's lawyer here, as I usually see more defense work in my own practice. Defendants are usually between outraged and awestruck that they are being sued. A full understanding of the legal system involves understanding that service or delivery of papers, while it should be taken seriously, doesn't mean much about the value of the case or the eventual result. Sure, your former landlord is suing you for $20,000 because you left a bottle of ketchup in the fridge when you moved out. The number is scary, but the overexaggerated situation generally isn't.


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