The Small Claims Reform Project is a national campaign to publicize the existence and advantages of small claims courts, to educate legal consumers about their rights, and to advocate for systematic reforms in the civil justice system. Small claims 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. The Small Claims Reform Project pursues the following improvements:
(1) Raising the dollar limits for small claims courts to $20,000. In most states, "small claims" procedures have been limited to cases involving extremely low dollar amounts - often under $5,000. Raising these small claims dollar limits is a critical first step to opening up the system. While the ultimate goal of a $20,000 limit may require some incremental steps, achieving that kind of increase would be the most meaningful reform to increase consumer access to the small claims courts.
(2) Authorizing small claims judges to issue court orders. In most states, small claims courts can only award money damages. Small claims courts cannot issue court orders that require someone to "cease and desist" from actions that harm others. This limitation means that many small disputes between neighbors or over contract rights, cannot be dealt with in small claims court. The lack of the ability to issue court orders also means that small claims judges often cannot help people collect a judgment they have won. Fully empowering small claims judges to handle cases and problems that require a court order is the second major reform that would improve consumer service by the small claims system.
(3) Expanding small claims dispute resolution programs. Because many small claims involve disputes between neighbors, partners and others who know each other, and who often must co-exist in the future, the exclusive reliance on a court-based, adversarial system can actually make matters worse in the long run. Mediation and other alternative dispute resolution methods are one way to avoid some of the lasting antagonisms that are produced by court fights. The District of Columbia has implemented an innovative "diversion" program that tries to redirect small disputes out of the court system. Such diversion programs tailored to small claims courts offer a third significant reform that will help legal consumers receive better service from the system.
(4) Protecting non-lawyer litigants. Americans avoid courts because solving their legal problems is not worth dealing with lawyers and legalese. Many small claims courts already offer simplified procedures that are stripped of most legal jargon, but the most intimidating factor -- the prospect of facing a hostile lawyer -- often remains. The simple reform of banning lawyers from small claims court has already been adopted in some states (including California), and should be extended nationwide.
(5) Making small claims courts user-friendly. Americans also avoid courts that operate on "bankers hours," require special forms, and tell consumers they are on their own. One way to correct this problem is through small claims courts that are user-friendly and accessible to the public. A final reform would establish small claims courts with longer hours of operation and weekend hours, require the use of plain language forms for easy-to- resolve matters, and provide in-person assistance to consumers at the courts.