Unintended Consequences: The Regressive Effects of Increased Access to Courts
39 Pages Posted: 11 Jul 2015 Last revised: 13 Jul 2016
Date Written: July 12, 2016
Small claims courts enable parties to resolve their disputes relatively quickly and cheaply. The court’s limiting feature, by design, is that alleged damages must be small, in accordance with the jurisdictional limit at that time. Accordingly, one might expect that a large increase in the upper limit of claim size would increase the court’s accessibility to a larger and potentially more diverse pool of litigants.
We examine this proposition by studying the effect of an increase in the jurisdictional limit of the Ontario Small Claims Court. Prior to January 2010, claims up to $10,000 could be litigated in the small claims court. After January 2010, this jurisdictional limit increased to include all claims up to $25,000. We study patterns in nearly 625,000 disputes over the period 2006-2013.
In this paper, we investigate plaintiff behavior. Interestingly, the total number of claims filed by plaintiffs does not increase significantly with the increased jurisdictional limit. We do find, however, changes to the composition of plaintiffs. Following the jurisdictional change, we find that plaintiffs using the small claims court are, on average, from richer neighborhoods. We also find that proportion of plaintiffs from poorer neighborhoods drops. The drop-off is most pronounced in plaintiffs from the poorest 10% of neighborhoods.
We explore potential explanations for this regressive effect, including crowding out, congestion, increased legal representation, and behavioral influences. Our findings suggest that legislative attempts to make the courts more accessible may have unintended regressive consequences.
Keywords: Courts, Regressive effects, Small claims court, Access to justice, Litigant behavior, Public goods, Empirical law and economics, Jurisdiction
JEL Classification: K40, K41, H41, J18, D63
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation