5 Things Wrong with our Legal System

Laws Not Accessible to Citizens
Have you ever tried to actually read a law? Have you ever tried to find one? Even in a digital age, if a citizen is lucky enough to find a law on a given topic (say, illegal evictions), the law is written in such hyper-technical language that is virtually inaccessible to normal people. It might as well be written in Greek. The Michigan law on illegal evictions, for example, is called the “Forcible Entry and Detainer Act” and contains the beautiful words “unlawful interference of possessory interest” and “injunctive relief” and “put out of any lands.” What? And that’s not even a bad example.

Thus a fundamental parodox: the law is extremely important to our daily lives, yet we are divorced from it. This flies in the face of an informed democratic society. One solution is that lawmakers start writing laws in plain English, simple as that (they cringe at the notion). The ridiculous technical language employed by lawyers and judges, although fun as a game to play, has got to go. This isn’t rocket science. Ordinary language would suffice. Don’t call it “Summary Proceedings”; call it Eviction, a word we all know. That would be a huge leap closer to a Direct Democracy, where the people directly vote on our laws (as opposed to a Representative Republic where we hire corporate-backed politicians to write and vote on our laws).

Courts Not Accessible to Citizens
This directly follows from 1. and is even more damaging. If you cannot understand the law, and if the Court Rules make no sense either (these are the specific rules you have to follow when filing a case, filing motions, conducting yourself in court, etc)–then it’s almost impossible to represent yourself in court. Yet this is a fundamental right we are supposed to have. Court employees hate when people are set on representing themselves because (a) they know how hard it will be for everyone involved and (b) the citizen will (rightly) ask them how to do things (file paperwork), to which they will reply “sorry I cannot give you legal advice” and (c) that’s bullshit. That’s a problem with the court system, not with the citizen of normal intelligence. What about Small Claims court? Yes, that’s nice, Small Claims is accessible to people, but the whole system should be like that. Also, you can only use Small Claims when you want money from someone else, there is a cap on how much you can ask for, and if you sue a business in Small Claims they have a right to “bump it up” to district court and then you are screwed.

Poor People Get Screwed
This follows from 1. and 2. If you cannot use the court system, then you have to hire an attorney. If you cannot hire an attorney, then you are screwed. This happens in both civil court, where poor people could lose all their money, or in criminal court, where poor people could go to prison for having bad representation. Not only are poor people more likely to not understand the law, they are more likely to get screwed when they break it.

Black Men Really Get Screwed
Go read the book The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. Even if you don’t agree with her conclusion–that our criminal justice system is a form of racism comparing to the Jim Crow south–the statistics are shocking. 1 in 6 black men have been incarcerated as of 2001. If this trend continues 1 in 3 black men born today will go to prison in their lifetime. A lot of this has to do with the drug war and how it has been waged for decades. Studies show that white people do drugs just as much as black people. Yet how many police officers have you seen in the suburbs, systematically stopping and frisking soccer moms for pot? Yeah, none.

Judges Shocking Power
When the law is horribly confusing and badly written, this gives judges not only a tough job but the unrestrained power to “interpret” the law pretty much in any way they want (to review, the law comes from two main sources: politicians and judges). This can be good and bad. We have all heard of the burglar who fell on a knife and sued the owner of the house. That shit happens. It’s a problem. The law has become a huge monster. Given any particular case, you could find case law to support whatever position you want (in law school I believe this is a typical exercise). It would be funny if it didn’t affect real peoples’ lives. If the law was in plain English and understandable, it would rarely happen. In a way lawyers and judges are like the Pharasees of Jesus time–they hold the keys to the kingdom at the expense of the poor.Don’t you find it completely absurd that we talk about Supreme Court Justices the same way we talk about politicians?

Having said all this, I remain proud our our legal system for the most part. In all it’s complexity, checks and balances, and evolution there is a beauty to it. There is no conspiracy here, and many lawyers and judges want to do good for people. But for the reasons above, I have a love-hate relationhship with it and think there are obvious reforms to make.

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5 Things Wrong with our Legal System