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Order in the court, and perhaps a little respect.

I wrote a column several weeks ago on New York City's housing court, and since then I have had telephone calls from owners sharing with me their frustration with that system - a system that they perceive as not working.

After speaking to these people, the two biggest complaints that they have were the capriciousness of judges and a lack of confidence in their own attorneys to adequately represent their interests.

To be honest with you, I think most judges and attorneys do a fairly good job. So why is there a problem? Most of the discontent has to do with perception. For the vast majority of these owners, going to court is entering a labyrinth of the netherworld. The customs and language are definitely foreign and strange. A visit requires the guest to suspend the reality of the everyday world and acquire a different view. The litigant hires a guide, the attorney, to escort him through the maze and emerge victoriously on the other side.

But the court is also a battleground between two warring parties. In the courtroom, the litigants are free to fight for themselves or hire an advocate. This is a war fought with arcane rules - methods of offense and defense that only a skilled warrior has mastered. In the bloodless combat of court, there are terrifying consequences for those not schooled in the use of those weapons. A medieval ritual is about to begin, with the chivalrous knights battling before the solemn judge in accordance with endless procedures and rules.

The court system also appears as a protector and guardian of our cherished freedoms. From King Solomon in ancient times through John Marshall, Oliver Wendell Holmes and William O. Douglas - we have looked to the jurist to protect us and redress our grievances against government and other men. We have evolved as a society promulgating both rights and laws to protect both the individual and the group.

It is essential that the members of society feel that the body entrusted with the power to adjudicate the conflicts between individuals be above reproach. This is the problem faced by the courts today. Instead of being seen as fair and impartial, the courts are viewed as the equivalent of a Koestler nightmare at best, and a fifteenth century Star Chamber at worse.

The vast majority of attorneys and judges will take exception to what I have written. They could make very valid arguments about how the rules insure due process and fairness to every individual. No one should he evicted or forced to pay money not truly owed. However, we are not talking about the validity of the principle but the perception of the general population.

What must the legal community do to regain the respect of the public? If we concentrate on the housing court, the suggestions made in my last column would go a long way in solving some of the procedural problems, but here are a few further suggestions. The first should be to make the physical plant of the civil court more friendly. It would be nice if the toilets had tissue, soap and paper towels along with working fixtures and a modicum of privacy in using those facilities.

Heightened security has resulted in the general public standing in a long line to gain entrance. Unfortunately today we need metal detectors to protect our courts. If my suggestion of assigning cases by mail immediately to a trial judge before the first appearance would be implemented, then the arrival times of litigants could be staggered.

Now comes the hard part: changing the attitudes of lawyers, judges and court employees. Court officers and employees should remember that they are there to help the litigants - not make them feel that they are prisoners. Remember we are in CIVIL court. You guys are CIVIL servants. So try acting CIVIL.

Attorneys, please remember, your clients are not stupid. You may have been in school longer, mastering your profession, but one of your obligations is to inform your client of his options without being condescending. The client should feel that his attorney is wholly in his corner.

Judges should remember the phrase judicial temperament. Courtesy, punctuality and a lack of pomposity will go a long way in making both sides respect the court and not have contempt. Not only must your decisions be seen as legally correct by the appellate courts, but you must be perceived as fair by the litigants. If the legal fraternity begins to see the non-legal members of society as equals, then perhaps we would all appreciate and respect the courts once again.
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Title Annotation:public perception of the justice system
Author:Campenni, Thomas F.
Publication:Real Estate Weekly
Date:Oct 9, 1996
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