case study of a small claims court metadiscourse
Keywords:metadiscourse, small claims court, website, judge discourse, grounded practical theory, legal–lay communication
This study analyses an important but unstudied site of legal–lay communication: the website discourse of a small claims court. I describe six interactional problems that litigants in small claims court face that the official court metadiscourse, i.e., the court website, does not ably prepare participants for. Problems include: 1) addressees vary enormously in assumed education levels, 2) facework challenges misidentify focal parties, 3) the speech genre is more Q and A than a presentation, 4) limited attention is given to distinguishing fairness from legality, 5) the downside of extensive metadiscourse is not recognised and 6) the variety among judges is given little attention. These problems, I show, are shaped by the existence of two partly contradictory ideals embedded in the practice of small claims interaction, as well as the metadiscourse regarding what counts as good communication. One ideal of small claims court is to see it as a place where disputes can be addressed fairly by an impartial arbitrator. The other ideal is to see small claims as a place where legal rules are applied to disputes to yield a legal solution. The article concludes with suggestions about how to manage the competing ideals.
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