Friday, June 07, 2013

A Day in Court

Yesterday my husband and I dressed up in our Sunday best and visited the General District Court.

He had been called to serve as an expert witness in a case that involved a landlord and a tenant. My husband had installed a septic system on the property (that's one of his three jobs, installing septic systems). 

The tenant was claiming they did not have to pay rent because the problems with the septic system (and other things) had gone on a long time before it was fixed. The landlord wanted my husband to tell how and when he had repaired the old septic system.

I decided to go along to watch because we have a little house that we rent out, and I wanted to see how things went in the case. Also, I used to cover the courts when I was writing for the newspaper and I always enjoyed the cases, unless they were about rape or child abuse.

General District Court is where the lesser items come before the court, including most issues involving rental property. This is also where speeding tickets, etc., first are heard before a judge. If the issue is appealed, it goes to a higher court, called the Circuit Court. That's in the bigger courthouse in Fincastle.

Security in the courtroom has tightened since I was last there. You have to walk through a metal detector, and you must leave your cellphone in your vehicle. You can't take an umbrella in with you, either. It was pouring rain so we both had umbrellas, and had to leave them in the front.

It had been years since I attended a court hearing in General District Court. One of the things that bothered me was that the deputies politely grilled every person entering to ascertain if they had legitimate business there. I was dismayed at this, for seeing how the country's laws work is important and should not be something to be challenged. You used to be able to do that without worry.  Personally, I think everyone should go spend a day in the courtroom to see how the law works.

I guess you can go watch because I did, but it is not comfortable being asked why you are there.

Anyway, we took a seat in the courtroom. After a while, the judge came in. We all stood while he was seated. Immediately the lawyers asked that the witnesses be removed from the courtroom, so my husband was sworn in and then he had to leave.

I stayed so I could hear what was going on.

I learned a lot by visiting. I learned about the importance of the lease and the initial inspection, and how necessary it is to keep promises, especially those in writing. Emails, I discovered, are admissible evidence. Being careful what you put in an email is very necessary these days. The same goes for recoverable text messages. It is no longer just hearsay - it's what you did say. And that gives it more weight.

Had the issue merely been one of an unlawful detainer, which is what a landlord files to reclaim possession of a leased property when the rent's not been paid, the case would have been over very quickly. The tenants had not paid the rent and under the law there is no legitimate reason for not paying.

However, the tenants had countersued claiming the property was uninhabitable and they asked the landlord for money, I think. At least that was my impression from the things said in the courtroom. The law has a remedy for tenants if they think things are wrong with the property; they can petition the court and make payments to the court in place of paying the landlord until the issues are resolved. But they can't just not pay. The tenants did not make such a petition.

Anyway, my husband was an expert witness for the landlord in her defense against the tenants.

Unfortunately, I had another appointment late in the day and the hearing went on so long that I had to leave before I heard my husband testify. He said the lawyers asked him about the septic installation, why the old one failed (he had no idea, they could fail for 1,000 reasons), and when he installed the replacement septic system. Once he gave his evidence, the judge told him he could leave.

I looked the case up online last night and the landlord won her unlawful detainer case. She was awarded back rent and interest. The tenant's countersuit was dismissed, which I take to mean they lost.

The thing I like about court is that it deals mostly in facts. They are contested facts, I suppose, and someone must decide who is right and who is wrong. But in many instances you can present things that reveal the truth - receipts,for example, for payment for work done. Or no receipt for nonpayment. That's a pretty incontrovertible fact.

I enjoyed covering court when I was writing for the paper, but no one covers court cases anymore unless they are sensational. I think this is a great failure on the part of the newspapers, and a total injustice to democracy.

Without news about what goes on in the courts, justice is not open and transparent. Certain political sides are able to make things seem worse (or better) than they are because the news is quashed.

I think this hurts the rule of law and the court system, because people don't see how it works. They don't see how the law functions for the mundane things. The workings of the law has to be visible and on display in order to be effective.

It is my opinion that the lack of news coverage has given unwarranted credence to one side of the political fence, the side that doesn't like courts or the law because it does deal in facts. That particular political side does not deal with facts, it relies on emotion and opinion.

We are slowly undermining what is left of our democracy in favor of flashy toys and soundbites. The loss of the media in the day-to-day issues that really matter is just a symptom of our demise. I am 100 percent certain we will regret it all one day.


  1. I agree. There should be something like C-Span in the court so you could follow cases that interest you without being grilled and strip searched!

  2. That is interesting that everyone entering was grilled as to why they were there. When I was in 8th grade, I was one of four students chosen for a court project. We met with a judge and spent a week of afternoons watching various small-claims cases (shoplifting and the like). We then had to do a presentation to the class on how the judicial system worked, and write our own court case, which the rest of the class then enacted. It seems like that would be a much more difficult assignment to carry out these days. Can you imagine what your deputies would think if four 13-year olds showed up during school hours to watch court cases?

  3. people also believe and form their opinions too easily by the least little things posted online. they take someone elses social media and run with it!


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