But it is a matter of principle…

The Art of the Dispute.

I am a commercial litigator. As you would expect, I deal with disputes on a daily basis. However, my profession does not place me in a unique position – far from it. The reality is that each of us has disputes and arguments, of varying degrees of seriousness or triviality, every day.

What my job has given me is an up-close view of the nature of disputes, how and why parties argue and the strategies that they adopt to try and achieve their aims. The purpose of this series of articles is to share with you some observations which are likely to apply as much to your daily interactions outside the workplace as within it.

Enjoy reading the final instalment: But it is a matter of principle...

Your principles calibrate the moral compass by which you navigate your way through life.The sensible commercial litigator will tell you that there are only two reasons to litigate – to make money or to save money. There is though a spectre, lurking in the background and which tends to raise its head more often than you might expect. This spectre is the 'third reason' – the point of principle.

In litigation terms, arguing over a point of principle can be rather costly. You should do so only with great caution, an ability to fund the dispute and importantly, to live with the outcome, whatever that may be.

But beyond the legal arena and in the context of day to day disputes, whether these arise from your personal interactions with family, friends, colleagues, neighbours or anyone else for that matter, these principles can be costly in more ways than just monetary terms. Relationships can be damaged or lost and you may end up causing unexpected collateral damage in the crossfire.

A principle, in its strict sense, is a tenet or code of conduct by which you choose to live your life. Most of us have principles and if asked to list these, they would tend to share similar attributes, even though the particulars may differ. These principles have laudable ideals at their core – to help people, to be loyal to your friends, to put your family first, to stand up for the little guy, to do the right thing and so on. Your principles calibrate the moral compass by which you navigate your way through life.

Daniel Gleek, Senior Associate
In litigation terms, arguing over a point of principle can be rather costly.
Daniel Gleek, Senior Associate

So what happens to these principles when you find yourself in the middle of an argument? The answer - is rather interesting things. Take for example the neighbour who replaces the shared fence dissecting your and their garden and in so doing, gains a few centimetres of your land. Your neighbour has encroached onto your property, invaded your space and has annexed several thousand blades of your grass. This will not do. Moreover, when you pointed this out to your neighbour he was dismissive and his tone rankled you.

What then follows is a dispute, hostilities, lawyers, fees and a blighted property over which you are obliged to disclose the dispute should you or your neighbour chose to sell and move away. You and your neighbour's children can no longer play together. Amazon can no longer leave your packages next door if they deliver when you are out. Other residents of the street are concerned that they will be seen as taking sides if they drop by to say hello as hitherto they commonly did. But you are prepared to weather these adversities because, after all, it is a matter of principle.

But is it? It may be, but then again, it may be something else altogether different, disguised in the clothing of principle. Why is it that one particular principle, from amongst your list of many, has within the context of this dispute been elevated to centre stage to take precedence over all of the others? Another interpretation for what is going on here is that it is actually a matter of interpersonal dynamics – most particularly pride – yours and your neighbour's.

In this type of circumstance, both of you feel wronged, you by the initial deed of course (which viewed objectively is simply a matter of measurement and boundary calculation), but much more so by the way in which your neighbour treated you, the dismissive way in which he spoke to you, the highhanded belief that his opinion is more valuable than your own and the way in which your concern was dismissed as a matter of triviality.

Pride, ego, self-worth – these factors are often the drivers behind the stand taken by parties in dispute. However, telling yourself and those closest to you that you will not budge because of your pride is not a particularly attractive sell. However, a matter of principle, well that is something else entirely. Isn't it?


If you find yourself on the cusp of an argument take a moment, if you are able, to ask yourself what it is you want to achieve, at what cost and why. If the answer to the last part of this question is that it is a matter of principle, then treat your principles with equanimity. Consider whether, in standing up for this particular principle, you are trampling over various others and if you are, then consider two further questions;

a) which of these principles is the most important, and

b) to whom – you or those who may end up getting caught in the crossfire.

If you have any questions on this article, or you need some legal assistance with a dispute, please contact Daniel Gleek for a conversation on how we can help. 


Finding a receptive earopens in new window
We often act impetuously, driven by the timing of our own agendas. Occasionally this will result in a good outcome – often it will not.
Validating your opponent's positionopens in new window
You have spent some time considering how you have been wronged. You have given careful thought to your objectives. You have rehearsed your speech, refined the content of your letter and are ready to set out, with precision, what has happened, why you are right and what you require to settle the dispute. The only problem is that whilst you have been formulating your thoughts and your strategy, so, too, has your opponent.
What is winning?opens in new window
What is winning? It seems a simple enough question, but take a moment to think about it and you begin to realise that there are degrees of winning – and losing. Absolute victories and pyrrhic victories can both be described as wins, but the outcomes are very different.