Co-narrating in informal dispute resolution

Fleur van der Houwen

Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, Netherlands, The


Co-narrating in informal dispute resolution

This study examines the co-narration of litigants’ stories by both a litigant and the judge in televised informal dispute resolution. In informal dispute resolution lay people may represent themselves and tell their version of events in their own words. Judges, unaided by lawyers representing the litigants, must themselves extract the relevant matter from the stories litigants tell. These stories may not always be oriented to what a legal professional needs to know in order to make a judgment. While judges are interested in the ‘rule-oriented’ aspects of a case, such as contracts or pictures, litigants tend to focus on ‘relational’ aspects of a case, such as personal relations between the opposing parties (Conley and O’Barr 1990). Because, generally, these informal disputes must be decided in at most 15 minutes, some judges may take an active role in the elicitation of a litigant’s story and involve themselves with its construction (NCSC 1978). This active role may take various forms and can be examined at the micro level, such as ‘gatekeeping’ or reformulating parts of a litigant’s story (van der Houwen, 2005). A special form of reformulating a litigant’s version of event is formulating part of the story for them. It is this particular interactional move that this paper analyzes.

The data used for this study come from transcripts of 40 cases that have been decided on American televised small claims courts. These televised courts have active judges and aim to entertain an audience. Yet, 40.5 percent of respondents to a survey carried out by The National Center for State Courts (1999), indicated that they rely ‘sometimes’ or ‘regularly’ on televised small claims courts for information about the U.S. legal system. This suggests the shows may serve an educational function as well and possibly mold lay views of the judicial system.

While the interactions are locally produced, they are ‘consumed’ by a large overhearing audience of television viewers. Through the micro level activities performed by litigants and judge, macro level activities of informal dispute resolution as well as societal norms and values are being enacted as well as reshaped. It is precisely in the interaction between the judge and litigants in ‘co-narrating’ what happened that we may see what institutional as well as societal values are being confirmed or challenged.

Conley, J.M. and O’Barr, W.M. (1990). Rules versus Relationships: The Ethnography of Legal Discourse. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

National Center for State Courts. (1978). Small Claims Courts A National Examination.

National Center for State Courts. (1999). How the public views the state courts. A 1999 national survey.

Van der Houwen, F. (2005). Negotiating disputes and achieving judgments on Judge Judy. Unpublished dissertation. Los Angeles: University of Southern California.

Session: Paper session
Narratives 4
Saturday, April 5, 2008, 09:00-10:30
room: 13