The second major approach to conflict resolution is derived from the science of rights, a finely tuned system developed throughout European history and adapted into the U.S. legal system. In this approach, the rights of individuals (as laid forth in the law) are keys to fair and just resolution to conflict. In the U.S. system of justice, the rights of the individuals are outlined in the Constitution, modified by lawmakers, and interpreted by judges. The legal system offers a highly ritualized process for resolving issues that have legal merit (and for dismissing those that do not). In theory, the legal system provides equal access to justice for everyone. All who appear before a judge are governed by the same rules of evidence and legal criteria-regardless of race, creed, or social status. The legal system promises disputants a structured means of resolving their disputes.
However, few would argue that power is not wielded in the halls of justice. Money buys better legal representation. Those who are lacking in resources may find going to court not worth the effort, time, or expense. In one case, a couple had divorced, and then a few months later, they reconciled and resumed their married life (without the formality of remarrying). For six years, they lived together, sharing all expenses. They separated again and created a custody agreement without the courts. Five years after their second separation, the ex-wife sued for back child support from the date of the original divorce 11 years earlier. The amount of money in dispute was $17,000. The cost to each party for attorneys was approximately $8,000. The case was heard over a year later. The ex-husband prevailed, the ex-wife didn’t receive any additional support, and $16,000 was paid for attorney fees. Litigation was an expensive way to resolve this dispute for the two single parents living under the poverty level.