Friday, February 28, 2014

(Small) Legal Culture

Culture is a word of many meanings.  To some, it means knowledge of literature and art.  With a small “c”, it implies the stated and unstated norms of behavior for any given group.  Recently, I had the pleasure of suing someone in Israeli small claims court.  I had taken someone to small claims court many years previously in the United States.  This experience was quite difference.  To clarify, having appeared in other court proceedings beforehand, I can attest that small claims court is unique and does not represent the general court atmosphere in Israel.

I will begin with a serious of random observations of our hour in court:
-             -  The judge was constantly giving orders to the clerk even during our “hearing.”
-             -  The judge immediately sent two cases to on-site mediators to reach an agreement.
-             -  The judge, when she did give us her attention, was not interested in our remarks, immediately sending us outside to reach a practical solution.
-             -  When we reentered the court room, she was out, in a meeting.  Another judge, much more serious, then entered to decide an urgent matter of custody.
-            -  Upon her return, she proceeded to resolve and provide instructions for the five cases in the various stages of settlement that were pending, including ours, while also giving instructions to the two mediators.
-            -   One of the cases involved an Arab young man who, during a race, has his car banged in by another driver.  The latter did not show up, which resulted in a heavy fine against the absent party.
-             -   The various parties wore jeans, disheveled shirts and sneakers, except for the lawyers outside who wore ties and white shirts.

This short slice of life demonstrates several aspects of Israel.  Israelis love to negotiate, treating law as merely another tool or, as they would say half-jokingly, the law is only a suggestion.  The judge as well as the involved parties ignored the absolute meaning of justice and sought only a reasonable compromise that leaves no party feeling completely defeated. By contrast, the failure to show up was severely chastised by the Court as a lack of respect of both the court and the parties.  Finally, the judge’s multitasking shows the wonderful Israeli way of trying to be efficient by solving many problems simultaneously.  As usual, I am not completely convinced that it is more efficient than handling one case at a time, but that is the local custom for all types of service.  By the way, as for our case, the store was ordered to repair the defective furniture with a date and time set, which is not exactly what we wanted, as well as damage award of ¼ of what we requested.   I suppose the entertainment value made up for the rest of it.

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