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From The Bench - Small Claims – Big Headache

POSTED February 7, 2012 11:32 p.m.

Why is Court so complicated? I just feel the frustration ooze out of the small claims litigants. Most folks who sue in small claims court sue on “principle” and firmly believe that they are in the right. The judge, however, must follow the substantive law. In small claims court, it is the legal procedures that have been modified or set aside to give folks easier access to the Courts.
People are also mistaken as to what is “justice.” Most folks believe that “justice” means what is right and fair to them. To the judge, however, “justice” means what is right and fair as perceived through the lens of the facts (evidence) presented and as construed by the law books in conjunction with previous cases (precedent). Yes Virginia, the law is very complicated.
The law is so complicated that law students must study full-time for three years and then take a grueling two day examination. Wannabe attorneys are smart, educated and scared to death of taking the dreaded Bar Exam and for good reason. According to one source, the recent pass rate for first time takers was 69 percent and for repeaters, 18 percent. It is no wonder that most people find it difficult to work their way through the court system, even in small claims court.
The good news is that there have been many steps taken to achieve access to the courts through the small claims court. First, there are state-wide mandatory forms which are intended to achieve uniformity in a “user-friendly” format. These forms are readily available on-line at www.courts.ca.gov/forms.
Second, the limit for an individual to bring a claim in small claims court (except for certain claims) was increased from $7,500 to $10,000 beginning January 1, 2012. Additionally, the cost of filing the small claims action is $30 - $100, compared to $225 – $370 for “regular” civil cases up to $25,000. (The fee varies according to the amount of the claim.)
One of the greatest benefits to folks who wish to use small claims court is the Small Claims Advisor (SCA). This is a free service provided by Stanislaus County Superior Court to assist the public in their quest for justice. SCA will help you determine the proper forms to fill out as well as how to fill them out, if there are questions. SCA will also give guidance on how to properly serve the paperwork on the defendant(s). The role of SCA is to assist the small claims litigant in winding their way through the oftentimes complex judicial process and it’s free!
Another free service available is that of mediation. Although mediators are available on the day of the small claims trial, mediation is available before you even get to Court. The mediators do not give legal advice. What they do is help both sides focus on the facts and legal issues and come to an agreement that is acceptable to everyone involved in the dispute. If you take advantage of mediation before your court date, the mediator can take the time to allow everyone to fully hash out what is bothering them, a luxury that small claims court, with its crush of cases, just doesn’t have. Mediation allows the people involved to be in more control of the resolution than when a judge is involved. The Stanislaus County Mediation Center is a program of Project Sentinel, Inc. and is an invaluable resource to our community. They can be reached at (209) 236-1577 or www.stanislausmediation.org.
Do you have a complaint? Then take it to court…small claims court. Or, better yet, mediate!

Nancy Williamsen is a Superior Court Commissioner for the Stanislaus County Superior Court. As a Superior Court Commissioner she acts as a temporary judge. The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Stanislaus County Superior Court.

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