The people are real in TV court shows and most of the judgments are final. Behind the scenes, though, it's a bit more complicated. TV judges handle cases that would otherwise be heard in a small claims court. That limits the maximum award to around $5,000. As an incentive to appear on the show, the show might agree to pay an appearance fee as well as the judgment amount awarded by the television judge. Who actually pays depends on the TV's show's small print.
About TV Court Shows
While re-enacted court shows can be traced back as far as the 1940 radio era, modern versions include The People’s Court, Judge Judy and Judge Joe Brown. In these television staples, each judge metes out their own brand of justice by deciding small court case matters in a pretend courtroom. If you’re wondering if it is a real court, the answer is no, but that doesn’t mean the outcome isn’t real.
How They Work
Most shows provide a way to contact them on their web page if you want to appear on the show. They also contact people directly by accessing their information through court filings. For example, if you filed a small claims case against your neighbor because you want him to pay for the hole his dog chewed in your fence, a show might contact you and ask whether you’d like to appear. The other side has to agree as well, of course. As an incentive, the show agrees to pay an appearance fee as well as the judgment amount awarded by the television judge. Throw in airfares and hotel fees, and both parties might end up as winners.
Is It Legal?
Even though these are not real courts, the process is legal. The shows use an alternative resolution process well accepted in the legal world known as binding arbitration. Both sides agree to submit their case to a third party arbitrator, in this case the television judge, and to abide by the judge’s decision. Once they put this in writing in a contract called a binding arbitration agreement, they’re ready to go in front of the cameras and have their case heard.
Potential Lack of Neutrality
In the real world, arbitrators are not responsible for paying legal judgments, and TV court shows are highly unusual by assuming this responsibility. The fact is, though, that TV shows do pay them, with the cap set at $5,000. There's a risk here that the television court show’s practice of paying judgments opens the door to the possibility that the television judge may feel inclined to render cheap over fair decisions. You may wish to consult an attorney to make sure your rights are protected.
In theory, the loser is responsible for paying the judgment award, but whether they have to pay a judgment depends on the TV show's small print. Some shows will pay the money as an incentive to appear on the show.
- Cornell University Law School Legal Information Institute: Rule 124. Voluntary Binding Arbitration
- CBS Television Distribution: Judge Joe Brown
- The People’s Court: About the Show
- American Bar Association: Syndi-Court Justice: Judge Judy and Exploitation of Arbitration
- FindLaw: Is Judge Judy a Real Court? Top 3 'Secrets' of TV Judge Shows
An attorney for more than 20 years, Cara O'Neill currently practices in the areas of civil litigation, family law and bankruptcy. She also served as an Administrative Law Judge and taught undergraduate and graduate courses in the areas of employment law, business law and criminal law for a well-known university. Attending the University of the Pacific, McGeorge School of Law, she graduated a National member of the Order of the Barristers - an honor society recognizing excellence in courtroom advocacy. She is currently licensed in the state of California.