Judges get more leeway in handling small claims cases

Posted Friday, Aug. 16, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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More information New rules The new rules are posted on the Tarrant County website, www.TarrantCounty.com, under Justice of the Peace, then Rules and Statutes. On Aug. 31, fees will rise from $31 to $41 per order for an original cause of action with one defendant. The Texas Consumer Complaint Center at the University of Houston Law Center offers free information on legal rights under state and federal law. To contact the center, call 877-839-8422 or go to its website at www.TexasCHYPERLINK “http://www.texasccc.com/”CHYPERLINK “http://www.texasccc.com/”C.com Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas provides free civil legal services to low-income residents in the area. To contact the office, call 817-336-3943 or go to www.LANWT.org

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The rules of suing a business in small claims court — one of the most important tools for consumers in Texas — are about to change.

On Aug. 31, small claims courts will merge with Justice courts, run by the state’s Justices of the Peace. JPs oversaw the small claims cases before, but dockets will now be merged and judges will get more leeway in running small claims trials.

Individuals will still be able to sue to recover monetary damages, civil penalties or personal property for claims under $10,000, as they have before. And cases do not require legal representation.

The new rules and reorganization of the courts are a result of state legislation passed in a special session in 2011.

A statewide task force, chaired by Russell Casey, Tarrant County’s Precinct 3 Justice of the Peace in Southlake, established the new rules, which are now posted on the county’s website. In addition to small claims, there are new rules for eviction, landlord repair and remedy, and debt claim cases.

Casey said the rule changes should simplify the trial process and enable small claims cases to be heard on their merits, instead of being bogged down by legal proceedings that can often derail a case.

“The vast majority of changes are internal on how a judge hears a case,” Casey said. “What we wanted to do is reverse the legal maneuverings and trap doors and have a case decided on its merit, which we hope will make things easier for everyone.”

New rules start the minute a small claims case is filed. Previously, the defendant was notified of “Appearance Day,” which was calculated to be at 10 a.m. the first Monday at least ten days after they were served, Casey said.

“They didn’t actually have to appear that day, though. All we wanted at that point was a written answer,” he said. “So we changed it to “Answer Day” and made it fall 14 days after they’re served so that is makes more sense to people.”

Another new rule allows those suing to have a non-attorney, such as a family member or friend, speak on their behalf if the judge approves. Previously, Casey said, non-English-speaking plaintiffs would have a translator and the opposing party would often object that the person was adding their own opinions and acting as an attorney. The judge’s hands were tied.

“We’re not going to play that game anymore,” he said. “This frees us up from the legal traps that are not conducive to good justice.”

Judges will play a more active role in small claims cases than before. According to the new rules, in order to develop the facts of the case, a judge may question a witness and also may summon any person to appear as a witness when the judge considers it necessary for a correct judgment and a speedy disposition.

Other changes have to do with pretrial discovery — the process through which parties obtain information from each other to prepare for trial — as well as rules of evidence and hearsay evidence, said Tom Stutz, director of litigation for Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas.

“You now can’t do discovery without the permission of the judge,” he said. “This is one area where a judge might have a lot of control over the case.”

Also, under the new rules, those suing are not required to file evidence with the court as they were before, Stutz said. And hearsay evidence may be allowed under the new rules, he said.

Casey said rules of evidence and civil procedures are well established, but “sometimes they get in the way” and may not apply.

“If someone wants to show a receipt from Wal-Mart but don’t have it authenticated by a representative of Wal-Mart, it should be allowed,” he said. “I know what a receipt from Wal-Mart looks like.”

Stutz said the new rules should make the trial run more smoothly.

“Judges will now lay some of the groundwork which should bring more order to the procedure,” Stutz said. “A judge can now ask questions to move the procedure along and to get to the bottom of the facts.”

The new rules simplify the process, Stutz said, and add clarity to the advice his office can provide to the low-income community he serves. But he remains cautious to endorse the changes.

“We will have to see how it plays out,” he said. “It depends on the judge’s interpretation of the rules.”

Richard Alderman, dean of the University of Houston Law School and a director of the school’s legal aid program, the Texas Consumer Complaint Center, is also hesitant to completely endorse the changes to small claims.

“I am cautiously optimistic that (Justice of the Peace) will continue to be a real people’s court,” he said. “I don’t see it impairing the courts’ ability for people with a grievance to go to seek a justified redress. But the rules have been changed. It’s hard to see how they will be interpreted and applied by the Justice judges.”

Teresa McUsic’s column appears Saturdays. TMcUsic@SavvyConsumer.net

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