Let’s face it – TV court shows can be fun to watch because they're dramatic; a glimpse into the train wreck of someone else’s life. You can’t help but wonder, however, why people are willing to submit themselves to being publicly ridiculed on national television. If you suspect the answer is that someone’s getting paid, you’re probably right.
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.
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
These shows are different from real life binding arbitrations in one key manner, however – arbitrators don’t normally pay the judgment. In fact, it might even be fair to say they don’t ever pay them. 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. Given the success of the shows, however, the participants don’t seem to mind the potential risk, and in the end, that’s probably what matters most.