Asking for A Little Respect

Ms. Faye Riva Cohen
August 9, 2013 — 918 views  

As Aretha Franklin sings in her song, all of us want, need, and expect a little respect. As a lawyer, and as a frequent participant in the legal system, because I regularly appear in courts and at hearings of all types, and I am often in court and government offices doing one thing or another, I too expect a little respect. Of course, I am not the only one, as all participants in any government and court processes expect to get a little respect. Not only do they expect a little respect, but they often look toward courts and agencies as their savior in a given situation. This inclination should be controlled, as the bottom line is that all systems are operated and staffed by people and people are imperfect, people often have their own agendas, people are subject to influence and corruption, and people have their own lives and issues to deal with and do not necessarily give priority to others’ concerns. Participants in the legal system are required to follow stringent rules, and the general public should be granted the same respect by the persons employed by that system that they require as part of a formal justice system. Below are some recent examples of instances where I thought people involved in the legal system could have given a little more respect to me and other participants.

I was in Municipal Court the other day in Philadelphia County. Municipal Court is the lowest level court that people can sue or be sued in, damages cannot exceed $12,000, and often people are not represented by lawyers. What follows is pretty typical in Municipal Court proceedings. About 15 cases were scheduled for 9:15 am, and everyone who had a case that morning was in the room. About 10 am a Commissioner, who is not a judge, entered, and proceeded to call the cases. The Commissioner has limited authority, cannot determine the outcome of a case if there is a contest, and cannot enter what is known as a default judgment, which means the party sued who allegedly owes money does not appear, if that judgment contains a request for interest and attorney’s or collection fees. On that day that meant that most of the people remained in the room because the Commissioner did not have the authority to resolve their matters. The judge came in at 10:45 am.  Now you can bet your dollar that if the lawyers or clients were not present at the time they were due they would be in trouble, unless they had a good excuse, and sometimes that isn’t enough. I was one of the first cases called by the judge, so I was finished by about 11 am, but considering the other party did not appear, is there a good reason I had to wait all of that time?

A couple of years back a judge had been elected to Municipal Court solely because her father was a well-known athlete, and she had name recognition, although the Philadelphia Bar Association did not find her qualified. The courtroom was full of people when she arrived, over an hour after the rest of us were told to be present, she heard one case, during which she was speaking on her phone, then she suddenly stood up and announced that she had an emergency, and left the courtroom. We were given a choice of rescheduling the hearing or entering into a mediation process. After I chose the mediation process another judge became available, but I was told I had to go to mediation because I was one of the first ones asked. I did not leave the court until 5 hours later on a matter that should have taken an hour tops.

I received a notice for jury duty recently for a Monday. I was told that I may be excused from jury duty but I couldn’t be given this information until after 4 pm on the previous Friday. I was excused, but I missed an entire day when I could have scheduled appointments. Once again, there seemed to be a minimal concern for respecting jurors’ time. I understand the system can be difficult, but knowing something about the court system, I certainly think a juror can be given a couple of days’ notice in advance if they are going to be excused, rather than an hour before a prior workday.

Laypeople do not understand that judges aren’t always held to schedules and can rearrange schedules. In a recent case, that had been pending before the court for some time, which was scheduled for trial the following week, and required that some depositions had to be taken by videotape to meet the deadline, at the final conference, the judge stated that the case would not take place the following week, but would take place four months later.  This trial had been scheduled for many months, and schedules were arranged to accommodate the given dates. This happens all of the time in the court system.

In all of the above examples, a little more respect for my time as well as others’ would have been appreciated.    

Ms. Faye Riva Cohen

Law Office of Faye Riva Cohen, P.C.

I am Faye Riva Cohen, Esquire and am a Philadelphia attorney who has been practicing law since 1974. I am the president and managing attorney of both the Law Office of Faye Riva Cohen, P.C. and Legal Research, Inc.