From Judge Judy to The People’s Court, televised legal spats make for a good afternoon on the couch. But how real are they? Can you expect a similar squirm-inducing experience if you find yourself in a normal court? Is it all just one big ruse designed solely for entertainment?
Drama is everything
“Assigning a level of ‘reality’ to reality court shows is difficult because, like with most reality TV, these shows fall more in the area of ‘contrived’ than exactly genuine or fabricated,” says Dave DiVerniero, a producer at Black Chip Studios in San Diego. While TV court programs may not actually have scripts, there is certainly a desire to create as much spectacle as possible, and playing up the drama is strongly encouraged by producers. “They often ask the guests to change case details and dramatize their stories to provoke reactions,” says DiVerniero.
However, in most situations, the cases and people are real, DiVerniero confirms, adding, “Occasionally, people will fabricate cases to get on a show and get an appearance fee. I have heard that even if producers know the cases are fake, they do not stop them from appearing.”
Of course, among the “reality” shows, there are the blatantly staged court dramas—like Justice for All with Judge Cristina Perez, America’s Court with Judge Ross, and We the People with Gloria Allred—which may do reenactments of real cases or simply offer up fictional characters and situations in a courtroom setting.
Arbitration versus actual court
To be clear, what’s happening on these shows isn’t a real trial, nor are the judges acting as real judges (though they may have been—or are currently—judges in real life). You’re actually watching a legal process known as arbitration, a legally binding form of what’s known in legal terms as “alternative dispute resolution.”
In the non-TV world, people use arbitration and its cousin—mediation—to work out disagreements without having to deal with the court system, and to try and come to a mutually beneficial resolution. The ruling of an arbitrator is legally binding; however, an arbitrator’s ruling can be overturned, particularly if a court decides the issues included in the arbitration fall outside the scope of the agreement.
Regardless, the people making judgments on TV court shows don’t have to depend on their own would-be legal authority, because the contracts signed by the participants make it clear they are bound to abide by whatever the “judge” decides. Also, the television show pays the judgment to the winner of the case. Normally, of course, if you lose a case in your jurisdiction, you’re the one footing the bill—assuming there’s even a payout, which is by no means a guarantee in typical small claims court.
Other things that come with a reality TV court show: free travel, an often speedier response than a local court hearing, and of course, the chance at your 15 minutes of fame.
Separating fiction from reality
Even if you’ve never watched her show, you’ve likely heard of Judge Judy, who, believe it or not, is the highest-paid TV personality in the nation. This syndicated show of the same name has been on the air for 21 seasons, and stars Judith Sheindlin, a former New York family-court judge who now adjudicates small-claim disputes.
While Judge Judy’s acerbic attitude and harsh delivery make her show eminently watchable, if you are someone who is looking for a bit of legal advice, finding another avenue is recommended. “Reality TV court shows give the viewers a totally unrealistic view of what courts can and cannot do,” says Kenneth M. Perry, partner with Perry & Aronin, in New York City. “The give-and-take of cross-examination and the evidentiary rules that determine what evidence the finder of fact may consider are absent from these shows.”
While downtime is certainly sped up for the purposes of television entertainment, if you are headed to court because of a small claim, from, say, a contract dispute or a landlord-tenant disagreement, don’t expect witty retorts and quick action, like those received by litigants who have stood before Judge Joseph Wapner or Judge Marilyn Milian on The People’s Court. “The mind-numbing banality of the real small-claims type actions, with the endless delays, lengthy waits to be seen or heard, and overworked judges or arbitrators, is totally left out of these shows,” says Perry.
Would it work for you?
One of the most important areas to keep in mind if you have considered taking your case to television court: If you think you have a good chance of winning your case in small claims court, you would be wise to stay where you are instead of applying for time on the tiny screen—particularly if your expected payout is over $5,000, because that is typically the maximum that any court show pays out to its winners. (Small claims courts also have limits on the size of payouts; these vary from state to state, but in many states the limit exceeds $5,000.)
Of course, whether your case is heard in small claims court or on a reality TV court show, there will be a winner and loser. But unlike small claims verdicts, which are frequently open to appeal, if you lose in the TV court, that’s the end of your case. There is no second hearing or follow-up arbitration. If you can handle that reality—and the potential for filmed humiliation—then daytime court TV may just be your thing.
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