Due to the high cost of lawyers and the lack of alternatives to using a lawyer for legal help, many people are representing themselves in court. In many states, 80% of divorce cases involve at least one self-represented party.
Courts need to make themselves more friendly to self-represented parties. These people are customers of the courts, just as much as lawyers are. Courts should provide plain language forms and instructions to their customers. They should also encourage clerks and judges to answer questions about legal procedures.
Small claims courts are generally the most user-friendly courts, since they offer an expedited trial before a judge, with simple rules and procedures, intended for self-represented parties. However, even these courts could improve their customer experience by introducing these reforms:
Raise the limits on damage awards.
In many states small claims courts can only award up to $5,000 in damages – a fraction of the value of many disputes. When the value of a dispute falls between the upper limit of small claims and the lowest amount that makes a full trial economically viable, plaintiffs are left in a bind. They can either sue in small claims for the maximum allowed, and walk away from the rest, or sue in a regular court, which is almost certain to be impractical. A limit of $25,000 would allow plaintiffs to seek a full remedy in small claims.
Give small claims court judges the power to order injunctive relief.
If small claims courts are to be alternatives to civil courts, they must be able to render the same kinds of judgments as other civil courts, not just award monetary damages. For example, it would make sense to allow a small claims court to hear a dispute between neighbors and to be able to issue an injunction.
Allow courts to require an accounting of assets.
This process, where defendants who lose a case have to disclose information about where they have bank accounts and other assets, would give plaintiffs a better chance of collecting money after a verdict in their favor, which is often a problem.
Make courts more user-friendly
Even small claims courts can be intimidating to the average person. Simplifying court procedures and using plain language would encourage citizens to resolve their disputes in court rather than walk away. Expanding their hours of operation to include nights and weekends, operating satellite or mobile courts, allowing online filing, and making advisors available (including allowing clerks to answer simple questions about procedure) would also help.
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