With millions of Americans shut out of the legal system simply because they cannot afford to hire a lawyer, small claims courts provide a place for citizens to resolve common legal problems - without the expense of a lawyer or the hassle of complex litigation.
Unfortunately, as the legal reform group HALT's 2004 Small Claims Report Card reveals, these courts are not making the grade. HALT found - in state after state - many courts failing to provide consumer aids, require plain English and simple procedures, and prohibit lawyers. And in the overwhelming majority of states, dollar limits on small claims - as low as $1,500 in some states - limit small claims courts to settling only disputes of minor value.
Alaska, in some ways, has model small claims courts. But the state's grade in HALT's report card, a "C," leaves room for improvement. For instance, Alaska does not assist small claims litigants with collecting judgments they are awarded by that court. Furthermore, of the Alaska courts surveyed by HALT, only Juneau employs small claims advisers - court employees whose primary job is to help people navigate the small claims system. Also, while the state's $7,500 limit on claims is higher than most states, it still leaves many people stuck in a legal no man's land with a dispute that is too large for small claims court, yet not large enough to hire an attorney.
HALT's report card should serve as a wake-up call to the State Legislature and to responsible members of the bench and bar. A court that is billed as the "people's court" must keep pace with the problems of everyday people. For this reason, HALT advocates an increase in the small claims jurisdictional limit to $20,000, which would allow Alaska's small claims courts to hear more than just disputes of nominal value.
HALT's report card also reveals the necessity of implementing reforms to make Alaska's small claims courts a more user-friendly, accessible alternative to traditional litigation: making it easier to collect on a judgment, granting small claims judges the power to issue court orders in addition to monetary damages, expanding small claims dispute resolution programs and expanding services such as small claims advisers and evening and weekend hours throughout the state.
By implementing these reforms, state policymakers can open up the legal system to all Alaska residents. And small claims courts can become a place where Alaskans can resolve their legal disputes simply, affordably and equitably.
HALT's 2004 Small Claims Report Card, along with an explanation of grading procedures and a summary of findings, is available on the Internet at www.halt.org.
Thomas M. Gordon is senior counsel of HALT - An Organization of Americans for Legal Reform, a nonprofit public interest group that works to increase accessibility and accountability within the civil justice system.