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The Case for Forgiveness in Legal Disputes, Part 2

Read Part 1 here. Print the full article below from the attached PDF file.

 A. Two Kinds of Forgiveness

In considering the role of forgiveness in legal disputes, it is helpful to distinguish Although the notion of forgiveness may seem far afield from the world of law, forgiveness is a powerful and important tool for conflict resolution.  Litigants need legal solutions, but they also need peace, healing, and closure.  Forgiveness provides a vehicle for achieving all of these.[1]  

                 In an effort to win, well-meaning litigators sometimes counsel their client against forgiveness.  In one incident, a woman was seeking compensation for serious medical injuries, but wanted to forgive the person responsible.[2]  She was dismayed when her attorney told her: “Don’t forgive.  It will hurt your case.”[3]  While trying to achieve a legal victory and protect his client’s economic interests, the lawyer ignored his client’s other interests, such as being at peace with what had happened to her, and having compassion towards the person responsible for her injuries.   

 The lawyer’s aversion to forgiveness was likely based on the unspoken dictates of an adversarial legal culture, which forces parties to exaggerate their differences, their injuries and their outrage.  The legal system focuses on blame and denial, causing people to become even more polarized, distrustful, and angry than they were when they started.  In doing so, it generally overlooks the tremendous suffering that litigants often experience.  Instead, the legal system attempts to monetize pain and suffering based on the greatest legal fiction of all: that money can restore wholeness.[4] 

Forgiveness has the potential to introduce an element of humanity and healing that has been absent from the legal field.[5]   This is vital when many in society hold cynicism and mistrust towards the legal system, and many lawyers report great dissatisfaction with their jobs, wishing for careers more in line with their values.[6]   By recognizing the larger issues implicated by conflict, lawyers have the opportunity to restore dignity and leadership to the legal profession.  While litigation often amounts to little more than expensive gamesmanship, forgiveness provides an avenue of dispute resolution that can be both practical and transformative.  It offers the parties the chance to be made whole beyond a judgment or monetary compensation. 

                 In the face of conflict, forgiveness can be a powerful and empowering choice.  As Gandhi said: “The weak can never forgive.  Forgiveness is an attribute of the strong.”[7]  Forgiving doesn’t mean an injured person must condone what happened.  Nor does it mean that he forgets what occurred.  Rather, forgiveness is a decision to accept what cannot be changed, while changing the one thing that is within one’s control: one’s own story.  At its essence, forgiveness is a decision to create a new story about what occurred.  It is a means of releasing the past, empowering oneself, and moving forward.[8]

This article offers an overview of forgiveness.  It is my hope that with education and understanding, lawyers and mediators[9] will be better able to support clients in the area of forgiveness.  It begins by discussing two types of forgiveness relevant to legal disputes: (1) bilateral forgiveness, in which forgiveness is exchanged for an apology or other act of remorse, and (2) unilateral forgiveness, in which forgiveness is undertaken by one party alone.  It then examines common misconceptions about forgiveness, reasons for resistance to forgiveness, and how forgiveness relates to a lawyer’s ethical obligations.  Finally, it provides suggestions for how lawyers and mediators can add forgiveness to the menu of options available for their clients.


[1] While the subject of forgiveness has deep roots in many religious traditions, this article focuses on the secular use and practice of forgiveness.

[2] The client in this story reported the incident to me.  Throughout this article, the names of those involved in the case studies reported are omitted to safeguard confidentiality.

[3] Id.

[4] See generally Margaret Jane Radin, Compensation and Commensurability, 43 Duke L.J. 56 (1993).

[5] With the introduction of mediation in civil litigation in the past twenty years, there has been increased awareness of the importance of addressing human needs in the service of achieving resolution, but only up to a point.  Most lawyers prefer to focus on the legal and monetary issues.  The predominance of lawyers amongst the ranks of mediators, particularly in legal disputes, reinforces this predilection.  The interpersonal dimension of legal disputes, including the role of emotions, is often unaddressed.  This is not entirely surprising since legal education does not generally include courses on the dynamics of conflict, emotional intelligence, or interpersonal skills required to address conflict on a human level.  While there has been increasing recognition of the importance of training lawyers in alternative dispute resolution, see, e.g., U.S. News and World, Best Law Schools: Dispute Resolution, Ranked in 2012, available at, litigation remains the primary focus of legal education. 

[6] Many report that they went to law school based on a desire to make a difference in the world.  Kim J. Wright, What Were Your Dreams About Being a Lawyer?, available at  Yet, many lawyers end up doing work that is not in alignment with their values.  “There is nothing sustainable about spending the majority of your working hours feeling that you are not contributing to the world you want to live in.”  Janelle Orsi, Sharing Law: The Legal Landscape of the New Economy 24 (ABA Books) (2012).

[7] “Interview to the Press” (in Karachi about the execution of Bhagat Singh (Mar. 23, 1931)), in Young India (Apr. 2, 1931), reprinted in Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi Online Vol. 51, available at (last visited Dec. 17, 2012).  Gandhi begins by making a statement on his failure “to bring about the commutation of the death sentence of Bhagat Singh and his friends.”  He is asked two questions.  First: “Do you not think it impolitic to forgive a government which has been guilty of a thousand murders?”  Gandhi replies: “I do not know a single instance where forgiveness has been found so wanting as to be impolitic.”  In a follow-up question, Gandhi is asked: “But no country has ever shown such forgiveness as India is showing to Britain?”  Gandhi replies: “That does not affect my reply. What is true of individuals is true of nations. One cannot forgive too much. The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”

[8] Eileen Barker, The Forgiveness Workbook 14 (Dialog Press 2009).

[9] The term mediator, as used throughout this article, is used broadly to include conflict resolution professionals such as conflict coaches, ombudsmen, facilitators, and the like.

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Eileen Barker

Eileen Barker is a mediator based in San Rafael, CA who specializes in helping parties achieve amicable resolutions in business, employment and family conflicts.  She teaches classes on mediation, conflict resolution and forgiveness and is an Adjunct Professor of Law at UC Berkeley. MORE >

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