There are at least a dozen court shows on daytime television these days. From Judge Joe Brown to Judge Judy and others in between, TV court shows can be entertaining and even educational. And since these shows have become so popular, there is even a new category at the Daytime Emmy Awards for court shows entitled "Legal Courtroom Program."
The compensation that litigants receive for making TV court show appearances is one of the most misunderstood aspects of the situation. The producers of court shows pay the travel expenses of the litigants, and their hotel stays are also paid. In addition, if the plaintiff wins the case, the damages are paid through a fund reserved for this purpose. The same is true for the defendant if they file a counter-suit and win that case. However, producers keep the amount of the compensation a closely-guarded secret.
The litigants for TV court show appearances generally come from real lawsuits that are filed. Researchers comb through small claims filings in various parts of the country and then approach the litigants to see if they are interested in appearing on a court show to have their dispute settled. The cases and litigants for court shows are real, and actors are not used in their place. Other cases come from people who call in wanting to sue someone. On several court shows, like Judge Mathis, Judge Joe Brown and Judge Judy, at-home viewers are given a phone number to call if they want to file a small claims lawsuit.
There are basically two separate types of courts on television. The most popular type is small claims court, in which a plaintiff sues a defendant for monetary damages. This would include Judge Judy, Judge Alex, Judge Joe Brown and similar court shows. The second type is divorce court. The most popular of these shows is Divorce Court, which has been on the air for 29 nonconsecutive seasons in some form or another.
When litigants agree to make TV court show appearances, they sign a waiver saying that they will abide by the judge's decision and they will not take the case to another court following the ruling. The cases on these shows are settled through arbitration, which simply means that a third party listens to the disputes between two other parties and then issues a decision based on the evidence. All the judges on TV court shows were real judges, but they are simply arbitrators on their respective programs.
Despite their entertainment and educational value, there are many critics of court shows. Most of those criticisms are concerning the behavior of the judges. Judge Judy's ire is the subject of many court show critics who say real judges would never act in such a manner. Joseph Wapner, the original judge for The People's Court, is one outspoken critic of Judge Judy, saying she is too "abrasive," "insulting" and "discourteous." (See Reference.)