The principle of the thing
The principle of the thing
"It's the principle of the thing." This phrase speaks volumes.
What it means is "I'm too hurt to let go" or "This is too wrong to let stand". It means something awful has happened and moving on feels anathema to us.
Most people get into litigation thinking it will be simple. We know, rationally, that TV portrays things in grandiose, dramatic over-simplification, but still we assume that it must be like that in some form. A strong character standing up and winning the jury over with an appeal to right and wrong, to good and evil, to our human compassion and sense of justice.
Let me put that all to rest. Litigation is not like that in New Zealand. First of all, we hardly ever have juries in civil cases, and often not even in criminal cases.
Second of all, civil cases generally take a long time to reach court. There is the initial filing of the case and the defence, then case management conferences, then discovery (exchange of relevant documents), then interlocutory applications (applications about interim matters like discovery and procedure), and then, maybe two or three years later, a hearing.
Third of all, the outcome of litigation is always uncertain. No matter the strength of your case or the hourly rate of your lawyer, there is always risk that you will lose. (At a human level, there is also an enormous risk that regardless of the outcome you will not necessarily feel better.)
Finally, and most significantly, only 1% of cases filed in the High Court reach trial. That means 99% of civil cases do not even get to the bit where the lawyer stands up and makes an opening statement, let alone the bit where a judge makes a decision. They settle. They get withdrawn. People walk away.
This often comes as a shock to clients. The ultimate goal in litigation is rarely winning in court, but rather settlement. And settlement will rarely happen without compromise.
Compromise is really really hard, and in the face of it many people will say to their lawyers, "No, I want to continue. It's the principle of the thing.".
Let me tell you two things. First, principle is crazy expensive. In a High Court claim taken to trial lawyers' bills of $200,000 are on the lower end of the spectrum.
Second, there is more than one principle at stake.
I do not deny the strength of feeling that sits behind "the principle of the thing". No-one says that lightly; it belies an intense sense of violation of the rules by which that person operates. It's shame and fear and grief and anger.
But it's also not the whole picture. If you can zoom out and see your dispute in the context of the rest of your life, other principles start to come into focus. Principles like the need to be mentally and emotionally present with your family or your business, instead of consumed by the stress of litigation strategy for three years. Or the principle that your money is better spent in a retirement fund or reducing your mortgage or paying for your kids' university tuition than paying lawyers for an uncertain result. The principle that your own life and wellbeing are fundamental, and finding a way to process the intense violation you've experienced may serve that fundamental better than an uncertain legal result (especially since, more often than not, you will need to do that personal healing notwithstanding a judgment in your favour; a win does not undo what has been done).
We should live and die by our principles; I truly believe that. I just believe that there are often several principles at play. When costs escalate and the impact of pursuing a dispute spreads to our jobs, our health, our families, our wellbeing, there is more at stake than just the principle in dispute, and we should be careful about pursuing one at the expense of so many others. Settlement on good terms is often the most principled option you can take.