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What the law CAN’T do for you…

January 3, 2015
Art credit:Chuchy5

Art credit:Chuchy5

When I was a teenager with a brand-new driver’s license, my only form of rebellion was to straddle the lane dividers and drive in both lanes late at night when there weren’t any other cars (especially police cars) around. Clearly, I was not a rebel. I did it because I was taken by the idea that I could choose to drive outside of my lane, in violation of the law and in spite of what my driver’s ed teacher had pounded into my head, and there weren’t any consequences. The moment I crossed the dividing line, I would tense for a moment, expecting flashing red lights and a bullhorn telling me to get back in my lane immediately before something exploded and people died. In reality, of course, it doesn’t matter where you drive on the road unless there are other cars around.

This is a metaphor for the power of the law; which is astounding in some ways, but impotent in other ways. Much like the Dollar, the law has no power except in our mutual respect for it. It is important to understand this when you are looking for a lawyer to get you any kind of civil, domestic, or protective order. Clients tend to think that I can fix their problems by getting a judge to tell their bullies to knock it off. They are not completely wrong, but they are not completely right either.

If someone is unlawfully bothering you, putting you in danger, owes you money, or is threatening your property, then a lawyer can probably get a judge to tell them to stop – but what does that mean? All you would have at that point is a piece of paper. And that paper doesn’t mean much more than the lane dividers on the road. Which is to say that if it’s late at night, and there aren’t any police around – it’s useless.

This realization has come to me gradually throughout my practice as an attorney. But I’ve really been thinking about it recently because of a few cases I’ve had. Without going into any detail that would infringe on attorney-client privilege, these cases are as follows: a stalking case in which a very dangerous individual with extensive criminal history would not leave a young woman alone; a custody dispute in which the non-custodial parent kept the kids at their residence out-of-state and plainly refused to let them come home; and a divorce case in which an enraged spouse showed up at my client’s house during Christmas dinner, causing a scene and refusing to leave.

These cases exhibit the terrifying situations my clients face. And sadly, my efforts to alleviate them are insufficient in themselves. An order from a judge will not physically prevent a stalker from watching you. It will not keep your soon-to-be ex-spouse away from your house. And it will not magically pull money out of your debtor’s bank account and put it into yours. The order relies on other agencies, namely the police, to execute it. The sad truth is that most times it will not be enforced the way you want it to be. The police will not, for example, circle your house looking for your ex, no matter how legitimate a threat they pose to your safety, and any lawyer that makes you feel differently should be avoided.

No one knows how useless the law can be better than lawyers. In many ways we really do live in the wild-west where others can take what they want from you, unless you physically prevent them from doing so with fences, locks and watchful eyes. So when you’re looking for an attorney, be wary of the ones that promise the moon and stars, or act as though a word to a judge will stop your tormentors – they cannot deliver on these promises. Buyer beware: when it comes to enforcing a judge’s order, you may be on your own in some cases.

This does not mean that the legal system is useless, it just means that it is not a complete defense. Often times you need a lawyer to help you get an order from a judge. It is just that this is the first step to protecting yourself, not the last. In the meantime, you also need to temper your expectations of what a judge’s order can do for you, and take the initiative to cover your interests in other ways.

I’m a criminal defense, family, and bankruptcy lawyer located in Salt Lake City, and serving clients throughout Utah. Please give me a call at (801)200-3795 if you have legal concerns such as the ones discussed in this post.
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