Vail Daily column: Comic relief for your legal ailments
In my dreams, as I walk down the courthouse hallway to the courtroom in which I am to appear, I hear peals of laughter escaping the doors as if emanating from a raucous comedy cellar. I hasten my steps, spurred on by the positive energy flowing through the building and walk into the room to catch the tail end of a humorous anecdote that a defendant is sharing with the judge to explain the reason for his transgression. The players in this imagined drama all have a hearty laugh, the judge crafts a creative and mildly amusing solution and everyone leaves enriched by their engagement in the process.
Perhaps I have watched too many “Simpsons” episodes, but I am always disappointed that neither this nor anything analogous has ever happened. Humor is medication and the ailing legal system needs a large dose.
We all make mistakes. Often those mistakes are funny, if not downright hilarious. I believe there is a large swath of the Internet devoted solely to that fact. The legal system is based on an operative fiction that ignores this basic tenet of life and encourages obfuscation instead of ownership of our mistakes. Fear of liability paralyzes corrective action and transforms a minor mix-up into something more sinister. This deepens conflicts and, in the end, makes them harder to unravel. Candor and humor being intertwined, it seems that an injection of one may promote the other and vice versa.
Imagine that your neighbor’s young daughter locked him outside when he went to fetch the paper. In his ensuing haste to get back inside lest the neighborhood peep his Superman underwear, he ends up trampling your prize orchids. You later discover the destroyed flowers and have no idea who caused the damage. Normal social morays dictate that your neighbor disclose his role in the caper, and I would expect that most in the valley would follow this path. But our legal system actually incentivizes your neighbor to remain silent in order to avoid being sued and having to pay legal damages, court costs and attorney fees.
If the guiding principles of the system were more comical than adversarial, your neighbor would feel much more comfortable coming over and telling you the whole absurd tale. Despite being distraught at the loss of your blooms, you would be softened by the openness of his story and the comedy at its heart. The shared humor would bond the two of you together and set you on the trail to resolution. Yes, he would still have to pay to fix his error, but you would be more inclined to be lenient. Maybe you would agree to a payment plan or a barter. You may even be so disarmed and mollified by the humanizing aspects of his anecdote that you chalk the whole thing up to the unpredictable nature of life and let it go, simply happy to have connected more deeply with your neighbor. The next time that you needed someone to look after your plants, you would definitely have a willing plant sitter eager to repay his karmic debt. In the end, that is the essence of a vibrant community.
There are clearly situations where this approach fails. Murder is not funny; with limited exception, most crimes and family matters lack any trace of hilarity. Yet in these instances, perhaps preventative humor could have mitigated or obviated the issue from the first. This is admittedly an optimistic view, and I fully recognize that there are many people who are so demented, spiteful, vindictive or simply mentally ill that even a hint of levity is impossible. But in those situations where humor can be infused, to me it seems worth a shot.
This applies across the legal spectrum. If getting the clients to loosen up a little is an impossible exercise, that does not prevent the attorneys from jocular banter; it is not necessary to always take oneself so seriously. For a judge, it is a tougher balancing act: they need to project authority in order to keep the system functioning. But authority can take many forms, not all of them so dour. There is not a direct correlation between aptitude and apparent solemnity.
I am not advocating donning a clown suit the next time you go to court. I do not much like clowns, and decorum is important. But propriety and humor are not mutually exclusive, no matter how profane our leading comics may be. Simply taking a whimsical approach to conflict will have outsize effects on the outcome.
T.J. Voboril is a partner at Reynolds, Kalamaya & Voboril LLC, a local law firm, and the owner and mediator at Voice Of Reason Dispute Resolution. For more information, contact Voboril at 970-306-6456, firstname.lastname@example.org or visit http://www.rkvlaw.com.
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