While University of Connecticut School of Law student Kelly Wall was interning for the state Department of Consumer Protection last summer, an employee there talked with her about the need to help people navigate the small claims process.

After all, the Department of Consumer Protection routinely gets complaints from people who have been wronged and the agency often recommends they take their case to small claims court. It’s one of many places in the court system where a growing number of regular folks are pursuing cases without the help of an attorney, with the numbers rising rapidly since the start of the recession.

And so Wall and several other UConn law students have planned a series of small claims court workshops aimed at helping to guide people through the court process. “We worked on designing the program over the summer,” said Wall. Helping the students was Michelle Seagull, deputy commissioner with the Department of Consumer Protection.

Another UConn law student, Danielle Jaffee, is currently an intern with the Department of Consumer Protection. It’s no coincidence that Wall and Jaffee are co-chairs of the workshop initiative.

“[Seagull] talked about it with myself and the other intern,” said Wall. “The idea was to have law students run the program. She needed law students who could coordinate with the campus. That’s what Danielle and I have done over this semester.”

The first workshop was held last month at the UConn law campus. About 20 to 30 consumers attended. Wall and Jaffee gave an hour-long presentation explaining the small claims process. Afterward, consumers could engage in one-on-one, question-and-answer sessions with numerous other law student volunteers.

“Part of the presentation is kind of what to expect when you walk into a courtroom,” said Jaffee. “Turning off your phone and dressing appropriately, making sure you stay calm, treat the judge with respect.”

‘Keep Receipts’

The majority of small claims cases revolve around unpaid bills, rent or unperformed services. Damages in cases cannot exceed $5,000. It costs $90 to file a claim. “One of the things we’re trying to get across to people is that the best thing you can do for your own case is to be prepared,” said Wall. “Have copies of everything. You always want to have your paperwork; keep your receipts.”

Jaffee said individual questions tended to center on step-by-step pointers of how to file the claim with the court and how to serve notice of the claim on the defendant. “We’re not providing advice about people’s specific cases,” Wall noted.

Wall said Department of Consumer Protection mailings are providing people with information about the UConn workshops, which she foresees holding once a month from January until the end of the school year. She said the workshops are based upon a similar program – the Small Claims Project — that originated at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles.

Wall said she consulted with volunteer attorneys at Southwestern in planning the workshop at UConn law school. “In 2011, volunteers contributed 600 hours—300 by law students and 300 by firm attorneys—helping almost 400 ethnically diverse individuals,” stated the web site for the Southwestern Law School program.

Wall and Jaffee, both second-year law students, hope to achieve similar success. They intend to lead the small claims sessions until they graduate and then pass on the torch to other incoming students.

“From the phone calls and e-mails we’ve got, I definitely see bigger turnouts moving forward, especially as we get more established and have a set schedule,” said Jaffee. “It’s definitely been a great experience starting one of these programs from scratch.”•

For more information about workshop dates, times, and locations or to RSVP for a workshop, contact smallclaims@law.uconn.edu or call 860-251-9285.