Why does the U.S. legal system have to be so complicated? Can the legal system be made simpler? Or is it destined to remain a barely intelligible mess, like the scatter-brained humans we are. Millions of years ago, when humans first stood up and looked across the savannah, did they scramble around like a toddler pumped up on espresso shots? Or did they survey the landscape, take in the scenery, and look around for predators or things to eat.
I’m inclined to think our ancestors did not just scramble around like over-caffeinated toddlers. So, why does our legal system appear to be designed by them? Here is my poorly drawn graphic to illustrate why things get complicated:
Life is complicated, legal problems are complicated. The legal system could still be a lot simpler. It wouldn’t require difficult changes to make it simpler. Let me show you how a simple legal issue, becomes overly complex.
I had a client who was issued a couple of violations by the New York City Fire Department, and I was retained to clear the violations. I’m not a litigator, but the client needed them clear in order to sell the building, which is why I was originally retained. These FDNY violations were technically misdemeanors, but in reality they are essentially glorified small claims court matters, which only requires my presence, because the rules of the court state that a corporation or LLC must be represented by an attorney. To start I needed to get a copy of the violation. I have the violation number, so it should be easy right? Surely, I can print this off as PDF from the FDNY website. Nope, I need to call five different phone numbers before I reach somebody on the phone who knows what I’m talking about, get a fax number and the name of the Fire Inspector who issued the violation. I borrow an old Delorean/Time Machine from Doc Brown and Marty McFly and fax my request for a copy of the violation.
TO THE FAX MACHINE AND BEYOND!!!!
I go to the criminal court on Leonard Street before it opens and stand in line for 30 minutes in the cold with a long line of people who all seem to be there for public drinking, disorderly conduct, or pot possession. Once inside I navigate through a maze of elevators and corridors, none of which have signs, arrows, or marked paths. After finally finding my way to the right court to make my pleading, I go to the sign up sheet, wait an hour, make my pleading. Great, they agree to drop the misdemeanor, as long as my client pays a fine and corrects the violation.
My client pays the fine, corrects the violation, calls the FDNY to make an appointment so they can inspect the correction. FDNY will be there in about two weeks. An inspector shows up, my client passes. I get back in the Time Machine, fax the passing inspection to the original FDNY inspector asking him to release the violation from the FDNY’s record system. I’m told it will take about a week to be released. A week later, I call and find out that the violation has not been released from the FDNY’s computer system, and this is a major problem for my client because they want to sell the building, and the buyer won’t take a building if there are any building code or fire department violations. Now, I have to go to the FDNY office in Brooklyn, it is only open until noon, because paying ten guys to operate the records room is expensive. Nobody can explain why paying ten FDNY employees to stay open until The Price is Right is over at 12 pm is preferable over to just scanning the records and placing them online as PDFs.
I’M SORRY, BUT THE PRICE IS WRONG! WE CLOSE AT 12:01!
I stand in line for thirty minutes, pass the metal detectors, the guy at the window for the record room, cannot release the violation from the system, the inspector has to do this. Will he call the inspector? No, he can’t do that, he’s perfectly nice about it, but he still can’t help. I call the phone number I have for the inspector, and luckily I reach him on the phone and better yet, his office is in the same building. I’m convince the inspector to help me out. So tells me to enter the FDNY from another entrance, I sign in with the security guard, he calls up, the inspector comes down, and I’m super grateful to talk to the actual human being in charge in the flesh. I explain who I am, and he agrees to take me upstairs to look at the computer records. The software is ancient. It operates on a Tandy computer they bought from Radio Shack in 1987.
DID YOU KNOW THAT IT COMES WITH A FREE COPY OF ‘WHERE IN THE WORLD IS CARMEN SANDIEGO?
We hop in the inspector’s Time Machine and he starts banging the Tab key like a savage. Finally, he sees that my client’s record has not been released, he checks his paper records, sees that my client passed inspection, and enters it into the computer as released. I ask for the printout of the release, so I have actual proof. He’s not sure if they’re allowed to actually give a printout from that screen, but he’s a normal human and can’t see any rationale for not giving me the printout.
Did you know there are people who wait in line and navigate this system all day? In NYC they’re called expeditors. If you’re willing to pay between 2K to 5K per violation, they will do all of this work for you. From what I gather they’re basically in the business of being nice to people, knowing who to call, and a have a lot of games to play on their cellphone while they wait in line.
Why this long-winded story Kafkaesque story? Here are some simple fixes:
- PDFs of all complaints and violations available on the website of the corresponding department. I realize this may be some giant IT issue, so it may not be simple. Some departments in NYC do make this information available, why not the FDNY?
- Why is the largest city in the U.S. still relying on fax machines? Seriously, WTF? This is 2014. Please let your staffers use email.
- Signage in the courthouse. Start with a directory in the entrance. Like the kind you find at the mall. Its a map + a list of the courts, restrooms, etc. Add more signs in the hallways with arrows pointing someone in the right direction. Maybe even some colored paths like you find on a factory floor or the yellow brick road in the Wizard of Oz. When I worked in a courthouse, yes, I eventually learned where everything was, but that does not mean the one-time visitor charged with a disorderly conduct violation knows where everything is located.
- Do not use acronyms when interacting with the public. They’re almost always nonsensical.
I found a great example of somebody who took something that was unnecessarily complicated in the legal field and made it simple a few weeks ago. The site is called RankandFiled.com, which makes accessing all of the information on the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) website usable. For years the Securities and Exchange Commission (S.E.C.) has possessed all the financial information, but you had to use the SEC’s Electronic Data-Gathering, Analysis, and Retrieval system (“EDGAR”) to access and download each file separately. EDGAR is a total piece of shit. Thankfully one single person was so pissed that the SEC with its relatively infinite resources could not make a remotely user-friendly website. So he created RankandFiled.com. Its awesome.
Inspired by RankandFiled.com, I made an attempt with my mediocre Python programming skills to make a Legalese to English interpreter. I’ve posted it on Github here. Essentially, when the user uploads a text file full of stupid legal words such as:”heretofore” it translates it into the plain English meaning “until now.”
I don’t have the patience/programming chops at the moment to make this a better tool, but if you do, please feel free to fork it and make it better, maybe give me a shout out or if you are competent with Flask or Django, then deploy it to a website.
I’ve also posted a link on this site “Free Legal Resources for Artists” where I’ve made free agreements available. I’ve written the agreements, more or less in plain English. It comes with a nice long disclaimer, because entitled people are dicks about stuff they get for free. I’ll keep posting additional agreements from time to time, including stuff for non-artists, as long as everyone is cool about it.