Bridging the Justice Gap with a (Purposeful) Restructuring of Small Claims Courts
18 Pages Posted: 16 May 2017 Last revised: 17 Sep 2017
Date Written: January 15, 2017
Legal services are so expensive that low- and middle-income individuals with access to technology and some education will frequently try to navigate the court system on their own. Accepting (as some of us have) that neither technology nor business models will close the justice gap in the United States, the most efficient way in which to offer access to justice may be to empower the individual to self-represent in the forum most amenable to self-representation — the small claims court system. To that end, this Essay presents a roadmap to both access and justice by reimagining the workings of small claims courts nationwide: framing a proposal that admittedly lacks the empirical evidence to support it because data regarding small claims court claimants and the cases they file is often not tracked or compiled. In an effort to broaden jurisdiction while also carving restrictions to curb abuse, small claims courts may assist with bridging the justice gap by implementing the following changes: (1) simultaneously raising court limits for claims filed by natural persons and lowering (or keeping static) limits for filings by non-natural persons; (2) limiting the number of claims that may be filed by a plaintiff within a twelve-month period of time; (3) providing a small claims advisory service to assist the self-represented; and (4) establishing a framework to assist the self-represented with collection of judgments. Given that small claims cases constitute a significant number of all civil cases filed in state court, expanding the jurisdiction of these courts in a way that speaks to individual access is a workable and pragmatic approach.
Keywords: Access to Justice, Small Claims Court, Social Justice, Self-Representation, pro se
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation