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december 1997

A matter of honour

Legal costs are only high because we make them so. It's time to stop relying on the law and recovering our sense of honour, writes Jack Yan

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I N   A well-respected magazine recently, I saw a column where the legal adviser of that publication felt one plaintiff had wasted his time in a lawsuit. He had sued on principle over a matter relating to a auto salesman's fraudulent misrepresentation. He was granted judgment but the legal costs were far higher. The advice: suing on principle isn't always a good thing.
   There are two responses to this. First, legal costs are high. Given how tough law school is, in some cases attorneys deserve what they get. The training should not be underestimated - and I speak from first-hand experience. But there's one reason for the legal profession being cash-rich: we sue our neighbours instead of discussing things over the fence.
   Lawsuits are prompted these days by broken verbal promises and representations for a start. And to secure ourselves, we get written agreements drafted up by lawyers. In both cases, the legal profession wins.
   The days when people could keep their word are not completely over: you see deals worth millions made over a binding verbal promise done within Asian communities. The reason Chinese family-owned companies can invest into property markets quickly is because of this. There are fewer intermediaries: the buyer can raise capital on the strength of familial ties and a promise. In this property game, it's no surprise that bureaucracy-laden, legally nervous companies are unresponsive, with the layers of management and written contracts.
   And when there is a dispute, whatever happened to reasoning with the other party? This seems to have disappeared with the guilty party usually acting irresponsibly. Either through a poor education or a lack of a sense of honour, the party winding up as the defendant refuses to see the right arguments the plaintiff puts. There is only then one recourse: the courts, where an independent party can analyse the situation.
   There is certainly a mood in western countries that in the good ol' days, people had more horse sense. A and B could talk it over, and there might even be C, acting as a fair, respected arbitrator. There was no need for lawyers and judges. An informal decision from C would be enough. There was more tolerance. This might be an over-simplification but it's not outmoded. The legal recourse is also expensive because of the number of cases. Having more people able to solve problems through C would ease the court system, letting it deal with those who truly have no option but to go through it.
   C doesn't have to see just basic problems. Specialist arbitrators might be able to deal with, say, building contracts, based on their experience in the profession.
   There is one aspect that hasn't been answered: what if one of the parties fails to see reason and continues its wrongdoing? That is a longer-term problem that falls back on our politicians' discussion of values. They're not going to do a darn thing about that, so ultimately, it's up to us to bring back the sense of honour into our communities.
   This begins with our own actions, and our own communities' reprimand of those who break their promises. We have a responsibility to frown upon dishonourable actions. Without it, our children will continue to see the unprincipled get positive media exposure, or get rich off the honest worker. They will continue to admire those in power who have gotten to their positions via corrupt, deceptive means.
   This is the first step in making our countries and economies great again. Democracy means that the average person has the power to make a difference. Yet in most democracies, decisions that are hardly compatible with society are made for "our collective good" in our state, provincial, or national capitals. Part of the reason is our increasing tolerance of a lack of honour - and, increasingly, our inability to perceive dishonour when it's dressed up through the media.
   This year, let's begin to take a stand and set an example for our children. It's time to stand up against dishonour. What better a present can we give them as we head into the holiday season?