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Attorney Van O'Steen

Enforce Legal Rights Sparingly

Van O'Steen

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I have friends, Jack and Shirley, who are in the process of remodeling their kitchen. Construction has taken longer than projected, and my friends are eager to have the work completed. Life without a kitchen increases stress.

Recently, the plumber hit a snag when he realized that parts were missing from the faucet he was attempting to install. Some legwork would be required to obtain the missing parts. Jack offered to shop for the parts while the plumber did other work in the kitchen. The contractor was surprised by this offer.

Jack is a lawyer; the plumber knew this. "Why," the plumber asked, "are you willing to do something I'm legally required to do under our contract?"

Jack is very familiar with contract law. He understood fully the extent of the contractor's obligation to him. He also wanted the kitchen finished as soon as possible. The plumber's question gave Jack an opportunity to explain his view of the law.

The civil law is important only when people disagree. It is a set of rules by which disputes are resolved. The law is not important among people with the same goal who are willing to work cooperatively to achieve it.

Jack explained to the plumber that they both wanted the same thing—the prompt completion of the kitchen work. That could best be accomplished by Jack's doing the unskilled errand work while the plumber remained busy in the kitchen. The cooperative effort worked well, and the faucet installation was completed.

Defining legal rights and obligations in advance of an important transaction is wise. Jack and Shirley had a written contract with the plumber. Enforcing legal rights, however, generally should be a remedy of last resort.

I imagine there are those who believe every right should be enforced just because it exists. The question of whether there should be any enforcement seems secondary. In my judgment, this view is shortsighted and often counterproductive.

Our society would be better served if we all lived by Jack's law and kept rights and remedies in perspective.