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The nation’s small claims courts improved slightly in the past two years, according to a national survey taken by the nonpartisan group HALT, but in most states the outlook is still “dismal” for people trying to resolve everyday disputes simply and cheaply.

The Washington-based group released on May 3 a survey that grades each state on the amount and type of relief its small claims courts offer as well as on its ease of use.

And, as when HALT last did the survey in 2002, no state earned an “A.” Scores in the neighborhood of “C-minus” were more like it.

“As the average person’s alternative to courts inhabited by lawyers, these courts have a duty to be as accessible as possible,” said HALT Senior Counsel Tom Gordon, who oversaw both surveys. HALT, whose full name is Help Abolish Legal Tyranny, often finds itself in opposition to the organized bar.

“Unfortunately our report card demonstrates that many states seem determined to put roadblocks in the way of the average person trying to resolve a dispute,” he said. Among the “roadblocks,” he listed are high filing fees, courthouses that are closed in the evenings and on weekends and an absence of human liaisons.

The top tier

California, which was the only state to earn a “B” in the first study, has been joined in the top tier by upgraded courts in Georgia, Colorado and Utah.

The “user-friendliness of California’s small claims court system is a model of the rest of the country,” said the 2004 survey, which noted with approval the state’s evening hours, advisors and banning of lawyers in small claims courts.

Although the definition of such courts does not require that lawyers stay out, it’s clearly a plus for HALT.

At the other extreme, HALT flunked eight states in 2002 and just four-Delaware, Kentucky, Mississippi and Missouri-this year. Upgrades include raised dollar limits and easier collection by prevailing parties, Gordon said.

HALT sends advocates to testify to state legislatures, he added, and credits its efforts for the improvement in the grades of Utah, New York, Washington and Maryland.

“Often it’s just a matter of education-they have no idea what other states are doing, or how people are being shut out,” he said. “Sometimes we use the shame factor, as in, your state ranks in the bottom five in whatever.”

Other times there is what the HALT survey in its California section refers to as special interest opposition. Because of such opposition, a “proposal to raise the dollar limit for California’s small claims court from $5,000 to $10,000 is languishing in the Law Revision Commission,” the survey states.

Those special interests are insurance industry trade groups and the defense bar, Gordon said. “They talk about sacrificing ‘due process,’ but the lawyers are afraid they’ll lose business,” he contended, adding that the fear is misplaced because “no lawyer wants a case worth just $10,000.”

The civil defense bar has fought the raising of the dollar limit out of principle, responds Mike Belote, a legislative representative for the Association of Defense Counsel of California.

“For the average person, $10,000 is a lot of money, enough to ruin you,” Belote said. “We don’t want to see people being subjected to that kind of risk without competent representation in a real court of law with real protections.”

HALT carried out its survey with telephone interviews between October 2003 and January 2004. In addition to general information, some of which is gathered by the National Center for State Courts, Gordon said HALT staffers and interns called each state’s largest counties and chose additional counties at random.

Grades were assigned to the following: Dollar limits, self-help materials, convenience, availability of mediation, expedited collections and injunctive relief. The last was available only in California.

Two states (Delaware and Mississippi) were found not to have true small claims courts, defined as courts that require simplified procedures and relaxed rules of evidence.

Cox’s e-mail address is [email protected].

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