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DISPUTES BETWEEN INDIVIDUALS

Even though most controversies between individuals never come to the attention of courts, the handling of interpersonal differences is a traditional function of courts. Most individual disputes involve one-shotters. The manner in which these individuals’ dispute is handled is likely to have a marked effect on their attitudes toward the government.

Individual disputes often deal with the distribution of economic resources and a variety of noneconomic problems. Economic disputes include various claims associated with contests over wills, trusts, and estates, landlord-tenant controversies, and disputes over property, land titles, and sales. Noneconomic conflicts include allegations of slander and libel, custody cases, divorce proceedings, insanity commitments, and malpractice suits.

Judges often attempt to encourage disputants to settle their differences by negotiating and reaching an agreement, as this process is much less costly and time-consuming than litigation and also less likely to generate harsh feelings. The success of such attempts depends to a great extent on the skills of the judge and on the nature of the disputes. If the parties are unable or unwilling to resolve their disputes outside of court, legal action proceeds and adjudication occurs.

In the adjudication of individual disputes, one party wins and the other loses. Robert B. Seidman (1978:213-214) observed that, in situations in which parties want to cooperate after the dispute, both must leave the legally settled cases without too great a sense of grievance. If, however, there are opportunities for avoidance (that is, parties need not live or work together), then the disputants may continue their antagonism. As noted earlier, the win/lose outcomes typical of litigation threaten enduring relations between the parties. Therefore, disputants who wish to maintain an ongoing relationship will generally engage in compromise settlements.

The structure of social relationships thus plays a role in the decision as to whether to take a dispute to court in the first place. When continuing relations are important to the individuals involved in the dispute, they are generally more predisposed to resolve their differences through nonlegal means. In a classic paper, Stewart Macaulay (1969) described the avoidance of the law as a way of building and maintaining good business relations. Businesspeople prefer not to use contracts in their dealings with other businesspeople. Macaulay (1969:200) said: “Disputes are frequently settled without reference to the contract or potential or actual legal sanctions. There is a hesitancy to speak of legal rights or to threaten to sue in these negotiations.”

Although a desire for continuing relationships may deter many disputants from litigating, litigation may nonetheless result if the stakes are high and if hostility between the parties builds. Nader and Todd point out: “It is not enough to state that because litigants wish to continue their relation they will seek negotiated or mediated settlement with compromise outcomes” (1978:17). For example, a family may be torn apart by disputes over inheritance, leading one or more siblings to sue the others for what they consider to be their fair share of the inheritance.

A very wide range of economic and noneconomic disputes between individuals end up in court, with many of these disputes over trivial matters, at least to outsiders. For example, a New Jersey couple whose home caught fire after a Pop-Tart was left unattended in the toaster sued Kellogg’s and Black & Decker for damages (Time, 2001:15). People have sued school officials for disciplining their children, and they have sued local governments after they slip and fall on sidewalks, get struck by lightning on city golf courses, and even when they get attacked by a goose in a park (Newsweek, 2003:43-51). An administrative- law judge in Washington, DC, once sued a dry cleaner for $65 million for losing his pants (Takruri, 2007). In more serious disputes, a client may sue her or his attorney for legal malpractice, and a patient may sue a physician for medical malpractice. As these examples suggest, the list of disputes that may reach the courts is almost endless.

When any dispute does end up in court, a judge takes control of the case (Soeharno, 2016). Judges are supposed to decide disputes by reference to the facts of who did what to whom, and by identifying, interpreting, and applying appropriate legal norms. As they do so, they are required to remain impartial and objective regarding the parties to the dispute, the exact nature of the dispute, and the outcome of the dispute.

However, even if courts appear impartial in their procedures, however, they may still produce biased results if the laws that they apply favor one type of litigant (Goldman and

Sarat, 1978). The type of attorney that disputants are able to retain may also influence the outcomes of court decisions. Availability of resources to disputants directly affects the quality of legal talent they can hire. In particular, access to a skillful attorney increases the likelihood of a favorable court decision.

 
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