The prime function of a Beth Din, as its name denotes, is to function as a Court of Law dealing with all matters that fall within Jewish Civil Law. It is indeed incumbent on Jewish Communities to set up a Beth Din for this very purpose. The Beth Din will rule according to Jewish Civil Law although by virtue of the dictum that the Law of the Country is The Law it will often import decisions based on English Civil Law. Judaism views very seriously the failure of a claimant to have the issue heard and dealt with within the framework of a Beth Din. It similarly decries the decision of a defendant who refuses to attend a Beth Din when called. Within the framework of arbitration, there exists the opportunity to compromise, although strict Law is available should that be what the parties request. Cases are normally heard by one Dayan (Judge) although it is open to the parties to request three Dayanim should they so wish. Parties may be represented either professionally or otherwise should they so wish, although the relative informality of a Beth Din makes it easy for a party to cope without representation. The fact that a Din Torah is run on an inquisitorial basis with a heavy emphasis on a lucid presentation of the facts as opposed to learned legal arguments means that a competent person will be able to address the Beth Din directly without resorting to appointing a professional spokesman. Nevertheless, many opt to be represented by a solicitor or barrister and their presence is welcomed. The parties are given the opportunity to address the Beth Din as often as they require, to bring witnesses and documentary evidence and to examine each other’s evidence. A written Award will be provided to both parties at the conclusion of a case. Both parties will be asked to sign a Deed of Arbitration whereby they submit themselves to the sole jurisdiction of the Beth Din. Failure to discharge the Award will allow the injured party to present the Deed of Arbitration and the written Award to the Civil Courts, who will, in the vast majority of cases, honour and enforce the decision of the Beth Din. In the event of the summons to attend being ignored, the claimant may apply to the Beth Din for a permit to transfer the case to the Civil Courts and this will readily be granted. Jewish Law dictates that in the absence of a prior arrangement between the parties, no claim for costs is allowed. The Beth Din charges are relatively inexpensive and are shared equally between the parties. The Beth Din will often request payment of its fees prior to issuing the Award. The Beth Din will not require full details of the claim, nor will it insist that the defendant is given documentary evidence prior to the hearing. This will depend on the nature of the claim. The machinery is set in motion by a written letter to the Registrar giving the bare bones of the case and asking that the other party be summoned. The Beth Din will only do this if it feels that a prima facie case exists. There is no formal application document although the request to the Beth Din must be in writing. There is normally a small charge at this stage to commence the proceedings.
The Beth Din is happy to deal with suitable issues by way of mediation. This is often possible when there is much common-ground between the parties as well as a genuine interest to settle. Thus, for instance, in cases of debt where the obligation is acknowledged but the ability to re-pay restricted, a settlement involving a realistic programme of payment can be agreed between the parties, facilitated by a Beth Din official. Obviously, mediation has the drawback of not being legally binding and therefore not enforceable. It is only used in cases where there is much goodwill and where the risk of non-compliance is absent.
As is well known, in general, Jewish Law does not permit the taking or paying of interest. Whilst in cases where money is lent in order to relieve poverty, this may not present a problem, where a loan takes place in a commercial setting as with mortgages, bank loans or similar situations, the inability to allow ones capital to be productive can be crippling. In order to meet this challenge, Jewish Law has devised a document called a Heter Iska which has the basic effect of turning a loan on interest into an investment for profit. A formal document must be signed and this will govern the nature of the relationships. In view of the complexity of the agreement and the need to ensure that the document matches the particular case, it is essential that the situation is brought before the Beth Din or a competent Rabbi.
According to Jewish Law, the Sabbatical Year known as the Shemitta Year has a number of halachic effects. Whilst the majority relate to the world of agriculture and the prohibition to refrain from much productive activity, it also has the effect of cancelling all outstanding debts. When it was seen that this had a detrimental effect on lenders in that they were reticent to lend if the debt were to become unenforceable, a device was constructed known as the Pruzbul. Basically this has the effect of substituting the Beth Din for the lender which then permits the debt to be claimed. This is because Shemitta is deemed only to impact on personal debts but not on those payable to a Beth Din. The Beth Din, in turn, allows the lender to claim the debt for himself. The Pruzbul is normally signed towards the end of the Shemitta Year in time to ensure that the conclusion of that year does not invalidate one’s debts. The Beth Din circulates pre-printed forms for this purpose.
Jewish Law does not permit ownership of Chometz during the Passover period. In the event of it not being disposed of, it is forbidden for use after Passover. In order to avoid the prohibition and ensuing penalty, the Beth Din, in liaison with the Rabbonim arrange for people to sell their Chometz to a non-Jew by means of a special letter of authority and power of attorney. Whilst the sale is in perpetuity, the non-Jew is traditionally kind enough to sell back the chometz at the termination of the Festival allowing it to be eaten by its Jewish owner. The same device is used for selling the stock of Jewish shops and wholesalers to enable them to continue trading after Passover.
The Dayonim of the Beth Din are available for shaalos both at the Din and at their homes by personal visit or by telephone.