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January 10, 2004

Baby Steps Won’t Take Us to Small Claims Reform

Filed under: pre-06-2006 — David Giacalone @ 9:27 pm

Although very few knew it, legal consumers in New York State could celebrate a small victory on January 1, 2004: they can now seek up to $5000 in damages in the State’s small claims courts (up from $3000).   The increase brought New York’s jurisdictional limit to the median point of such courts nationally.   


While I congratulate the legal reform group HALT for helping to achieve this result (which we strongly supported here at ethicalEsq), I don’t share in the excited tone of their announcement, “Expanded Access to New York’s People’s Courts Takes Effect” (Jan. 5, 2004).    There is simply too much more to do, if we’re ever going to turn small claims courts into what HALT calls “the people’s courts,” and achieve their potential for increasing access to the justice system for the average consumer.  


As HALT’s director wrote in the law review article Small Claims Reform: A Means of Expanding Access to the American Justice System (by James C. Turner and Joyce A. McGee, U.D.C. L. Rev., Fall 2000):

One key method of improving citizen access to the civil justice system is through small claims courts. These courts – which use simplified procedures, require plain English, provide consumer aids and often prohibit lawyers – have tremendous promise as a means of empowering ordinary people to take charge of their own routine legal needs.

HALT has been focusing on raising the jurisdictional dollar limits, which is a smart place to start.  However, HALT’s goal is $20,000, and the median is still at $5000, with increases barely topping the inflation rate.   What has me worried most is that the increases achieved to date do not appear to be increasing access — and HALT has even been using the failure to increase court caseloads as a selling point in arguing for the modest increases in dollar limits.  Thus, HALT’s press release last week stressed that HALT had submitted to NY Governor Pataki (emphasis added):

“findings from a new study that silences concerns that higher dollar limits would produce an onslaught of new cases, straining the system to its breaking point. Drawing on state-by-state caseload data in the study, HALT conclusively proved that a rise in jurisdictional limit very rarely leads to a larger caseload.” 

More specifically, in describing its study, HALT told a California Law Review Commission last September that:

“in most cases, a dollar-limit hike causes caseloads to change very little, if at all.  On average, a court experiences only a 5.4% increase in caseload during the first year after a dollarlimit increase, which is within the range of average variation in a normal year. Furthermore, five years after the jurisdictional increase, the caseloads of five out of six courts return to their pre-increase size. In short, whatever small increase there is initially, it will dissipate quickly and have little effect on the courts’ caseloads or resources.” 

Perhaps haikuing has caused my brain to see the world far too simplistically, but “little effect on the courts’ caseloads” suggests to me little effect on access.  I’m not faulting HALT for dealing with the realities of politics and state budgets when fighting to increase dollar limits.  I simply don’t think we can achieve greater access if we are unwilling to (1) make sure the public knows about the improvements; (2) bring the benefits of computer self-help technology to small claims courts; and (3) do what it takes to shift cases from more formal and expensive court settings to small claims courts.


We’ve chided the legal profession for not taking up the cause of small claims reform, and for often working against it (apparently due to financial motives).    As courts have shown in California, Nevada, Wisconsin and other states, the technology and program prototypes already exist to make small claims courts far more user-friendly and efficient.  What we need are bar leaders who care enough, and judicial administrators what are far-sighted enough, to get such programs working in every state. 

granny rocker

Sometimes, I wish the demographics of the weblogiverse were skewed a bit more toward baby boomers and senior citizens, rather than the under-30 crowd.  I think that small claims reform would be a perfect cause for many senior citizen groups (hint being sent here to The Senior Corps, AARP’s Legal Counsel for the Elderly, and the ABA Senior Lawyers Division).  No group of Americans are more willing and capable of asserting their rights, putting pressure to bear on political leaders, or insisting on (and using) well-designed self-help materials. 

Someone’s got to seriously commit themselves to these goals, if we’re going to start making the judicial system accessible for the everyday legal disputes of the average consumer (and small business).  As a bonus, small claims reform, when done right, includes a mediation component that will resolve many disputes in a way that further  minimizes court resources and future disputes.  Everybody could win.  So, let’s get off our butts and start taking some giant steps toward accessibility.

  • One suggestion for increasing public awareness of reforms at small claims court: talk to your local tv station’s consumer advocate and get some free publicity for increased dollar limits, computer-assisted technology, hardcopy and e-brochures, etc. 

Update (01-11-04):  Carolyn Elefant has a thoughtful follow-up piece on this topic today at MyShingle, asking good questions and offering suggestions worth pursuing (including having concurrent jurisdiction with trial courts for higher dollar amounts), as we move toward the main goal of improving access.  As I replied at Carolyn’s site, “I would be very happy with $10,000 maximum limits at this point in small claims courts, if the rest of the reform package is adopted: Make small claims courts more user-friendly; take advantage of technology to increase self-help resources and efficiencies; make mediation available; and publicize so that the public knows this tool for access is available and effective.”

Last year, Stuart Levine of the Tax & Business Law Commentary left the following Comment at our post about the situation (shenanigans) in Maryland:

“The increase in the District Court’s exclusive jurisdiction may be good or it may be bad, but it’s clearly not good for small defendants, usually individuals seeking to fend off claims (presumably disputed claims) of corporate creditors. The bill strips the right to have the claim tried before a jury. Thus the bill was sought by large commercial interests who saw it as a way to expedite their ability to collect debts and claims against consumers. The intent of the bill in no way was to lower the attorneys’ fees consumers are exposed to.”

These questions deserve answers,  I hope that HALT can offer some insight into the issues.  As long as small claims courts have fair results, I am not personally affronted by the loss of jury trials in civil matters — litigants deserve expedited justice when their cases are valid, whether they are corporations or individuals. (Carolyn added her own update this evening, noting the importance of Stu’s question and the need for some hard information.)

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