Most people using small claims courts decide to represent themselves in matters involving doctor bills, breaches of contract and the return of security deposits. But as of June, small claims litigants in Hartford Superior Could have had some help, thanks to a pro bono program called the Small Claims Project. Soon the program will be expanding to other courthouses.
“They’re looking to expand it and to include courts in Bridgeport, Waterbury, Manchester and New Haven,” said Jessica Pace, a communications and marketing associate for the Connecticut Bar Association.
The pro bono effort is now looking for more retired lawyers to help in the small claims courts, which hear civil cases where $5,000 or less is at stake. As of now, only four lawyers are involved in helping litigants.
A change in Connecticut’s Practice Book will make it possible for attorneys who have formally retired from the practice of law to participate in the project. After Jan. 1, 2014, lawyers who have registered as “retired” with the Superior Court will be able to engage in pro bono work under the auspices of a legal services organization, or a bar-sponsored pro bono project. The CBA has a professional liability policy covering attorneys volunteering for the Small Claims Project.
The lawyers will meet individually with clients to give brief advice about court procedures, how to present their claims or their defense, and what type of evidence they need.
Peter Arakas, president of the Connecticut Bar Foundation and former general counsel of LEGO Systems Inc. in Enfield, said he and the other lawyers now involved in the Hartford pilot program meet with clients twice a month, every other Tuesday, for about two hours.
“Norm and I and a few others brainstormed the idea,” Arakas said, referring to Norm Janes, a former interim executive director of the CBA. “Any volunteer gets malpractice coverage through the CBA. Then we provide training.”
The lawyers are trained in areas such as housing, collection and consumer law, and in small claims procedures.
Helping the litigants fill out the necessary forms is one way lawyers help. “It’s much more complex than you would think to fill out a small claims court form,” Arakas said. “The clerk can help with the procedures but they can’t say this is how to prove your claim.”
For lawyer worried about being embroiled in a long-running case, Arakas said: “We form a relationship only for the time we are in the room. There’s no ongoing relationship.”
In one case, Arakas helped someone who already won a small claims judgment figure out how to collect it. Another case involved a client who was having trouble getting a landlord to return his security deposit. “We’ve seen a wide variety of cases, all the things people experience, day in and day out,” Arakas said. “I find it so rewarding. You really feel like you are helping people. People are very grateful to get the help.”
Surveys taken by court staff after the advice is given show a 95 percent satisfaction rate, the volunteer lawyers said. “A lot of the folks who are representing themselves in small claims court really need some help,” Janes said. “There’s a need for some legal advice.”
So far, the volunteers have mostly offered that advice to plaintiffs, but plans are to give counsel to an increasing number of defendants. Janes emphasized that the volunteer lawyers don’t advocate for litigants in the courtroom, but give them tips on how to handle the hearing on their own. “This is just advice, a one-shot deal,” Janes said.
He added that volunteers need not have litigation experience. “The law that’s involved in most of these cases is not complex,” he said. Nor does participation require a tremendous time commitment. “But it does get the lawyers to the courthouse,” Janes said. Retired lawyers get to put on their suits and feel like they are part of the profession again, he said.
“It’s enjoyable for me. I really like working with clients,” said Janes. “It’s fun to do this because the clients appreciate the help you can give them.”•
For more information about the Small Claims Project, or to volunteer, contact Melissa Wyckoff at 860-612-2036 or email@example.com.