The Jewish Ethicist - Slander in the Court.
My day in court – how far should I go?
Q.My boss harassed me for years, and now I've been granted a hearing to get certain benefits I deserve. How should I balance defending my case with avoiding besmirching him?
A.Your question is very praiseworthy. Judaism considers slandering others, lashon hara, to be a most severe transgression.
The short answer is that while the laws of lashon hara are not suspended in legal proceedings, it would be very unusual for someone to violate the laws of slander while providing accurate testimony to such a hearing. Let's analyze the case in more detail.
As we mentioned, the laws of slander do apply in legal proceedings. In fact, one of the most important Talmudic precedents for the laws of slander is in a court context:
"Tuvia sinned and Zigod came before Rav Pappa to testify against him. Rav Pappa sentenced Zigod [himself] to lashes. He cried, 'Tuvia sinned and Zigod is lashed?' He said, 'Yes, as it is written "One witness shall not rise against a man" (Deut 19), and since you came alone to testify, you are merely slandering him.'" (1
However, the scope of this law is very limited. The particularly technicality involved is that the violation Tuvia was accused of can be tried only when two witnesses are present. But the context is that this case is the Talmudic equivalent of a "nuisance suit" or "frivolous litigation" -- legal actions with no chance or basis for obtaining constructive court action. Zigod was no more than a tattle-tale; if he had told the judge why he came to testify he would never have been granted a hearing.
When there is a substantive legal discussion in court, it would be very unusual for the laws of lashon hara to apply. Let's see why.
As we have discussed many times, while Jewish law forbids idle slander, it permits accusing others when the following conditions are met:
- The claims are accurate;
- There is a constructive objective that cannot be obtained without speaking up;
- The intention is constructive and not vindictive;
- The constructive objective is not obtained at the expense of undeserved harm to the accused or anyone else.
The obligation to make only accurate statements in a legal proceeding is not merely a consequence of the laws of slander; it is part of the basic obligation of every person to testify honestly before any legitimate legal tribunal. In your case there is certainly a constructive objective that cannot be achieved any other way; you will not be able to obtain benefits or damages without presenting your case to the court. The third condition legitimate intention, is known only to you, but you state that your only objective is to obtain the benefits due to you (severance pay and the like), not to publicly shame your boss. On the contrary, your question shows that your main concern is to not shame your former employer gratuitously.
Obtain the benefits you think you are entitled to – don't avenge past wrongs.
The question of undeserved harm is a serious one, but does not seem to be a problem in your case. It could be relevant if the proceeding would involve the accused in criminal liability. (It could also be relevant if someone defended himself in a criminal case by constructing a case against an innocent third party.) But, [to the best of my knowledge] hearings in employment cases don't have automatic ramifications for other cases, and keep in mind also that your employer has every opportunity to present his side of the case as well, so the chance of his being penalized beyond his legal responsibility is small.
When you are in front of the labor court, you should of course be careful to make only truthful statements, and your objective should be to obtain the benefits you think you are entitled to -- not to avenge past wrongs. But it is perfectly acceptable for you to present the facts of your case, including unfavorable statements about your former employer, in a way that supports your position. If it is a reputable court, he will have every opportunity to present his side of the case as well, thus enabling the judge or arbitrator to make a fair decision.
SOURCES: (1) Babylonian Talmud Pesachim 113b
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