It is both a privilege and an honor to contribute this article as president of the Small Claims Arbitrators Association concerning the Law Day topic, “Law in the 21st Century: Enduring Traditions, Emerging Challenges,” as it pertains to the Small Claims Part of the Civil Court of the City of New York.
Since its creation in the mid-20th century, the Small Claims Part has provided the general public access to the court system without the need either to navigate a procedural maze or for legal representation. As a result, it has been colloquially re-named “the people’s court,” as evening after evening pro se litigants appear to have their cases decided by an army of volunteer attorneys doing the public good.
Including the Commercial Small Claims Part, there are approximately 45,000 small claims case filings in all five boroughs annually.
Small Claims Court’s enduring traditions include ease of access, speedy resolution of cases, the absence of discovery except by court order, and the procedural assistance of the court in obtaining both subject matter and in personam jurisdiction over defendants. As a result of these traditions, cases are resolved in months as opposed to years.
Although the maximum claim amount is only $5,000, the complexity and variety of cases brought in this court have risen dramatically over the past two decades. In the course of a single evening, a small claims arbitrator may hear cases involving such diverse areas of civil law as debt collection, contracts, general negligence, property, bailment, landlord and tenant, and even malpractice (dental and veterinary only).
Small Claims Court has fostered two additional traditions of note, namely a relaxation of evidentiary rules and the “substantial justice” standard as defined in New York City Civil Court Act §1804. The former permits the parties to try their case on their own terms, while the latter permits the arbitrator or judge flexibility in obtaining a just result at the conclusion of the case.
These enduring traditions have helped the small claims part of the Civil Court of the City of New York become a refuge for those seeking legal redress that they otherwise might forego, as well as a model for other courts created in new democracies around the globe.
‘Angels’ Always Needed
Since its inception, the Small Claims Court has faced the challenge of recruiting and keeping public service oriented and high minded lawyers as volunteer arbitrators, or “angels,” as we have been called by Justice Fern A. Fisher, deputy administrative judge for New York City courts.
With approximately 45,000 new case filings per year, the court could simply not function without arbitrators. The recent economic downturn, and particularly the foreclosure crisis, has led to a much greater demand for pro bono services by lawyers willing to assist the needy.
Consequently, the various volunteer lawyer projects are recruiting heavily from the same pool of high minded public service oriented attorneys who have traditionally served as volunteer arbitrators.
As a result, the Small Claims Court faces an increased challenge in competing for a precious resource, namely, the limited number of lawyers willing to do public service, limited further by the number of hours they can offer performing public service while still maintaining a livelihood practicing law.
The arbitrator’s association, as the sole organization tasked with training new arbitrators, will continue to use its best efforts in attracting and retaining lawyers with five or more years of experience to sit as arbitrators for the court.
Such efforts include offering up to eight free CLE credits per year for nominal annual dues of $40, and our renowned annual dinner at the National Arts Club where each year we honor an “Arbitrator of the Year” from every county in the city of New York.
However, we must do more to reach members of the bar who have not considered being arbitrators, to now become arbitrators and help us to “do the public good.” I wish you all the very best this Law Day and urge you to consider becoming an arbitrator in Small Claims Court.
Paul V. Nuccio is a special referee conducting CPLR §3408 conferences in the foreclosure department of Supreme Court, Kings County.