A new task force will review the practices and procedures of the nine small claims courts within the state’s largest county, following critical reports last year suggesting litigants may not receive the same access to justice in each court or as parties have in other Indiana jurisdictions.
The Indiana Supreme Court announced the new task force Tuesday. Court of Appeals Judge John Baker and Senior Judge Betty Barteau, who both had experience at the small claims level, will be responsible for examining the unique structure of Marion County’s small claims system.
Each of the nine townships have their own locally funded courts, judges and staff. Most of the collection cases in those courts involve less than $6,000, and those can be filed in any of the nine townships – except in landlord-tenant disputes, which must be filed in the township where the property is located. But in every case, no matter the jurisdiction, the defendant has the ability to ask that the lawsuit be venued to the township where he or she lives. Questions have arisen about the township trustees’ influence on court operations and how judicial independence is impacted.
The issue received national attention in July when a front-page Wall Street Journal article highlighted perceptions about “forum shopping” in the small claims courts. The article focused on debt collection cases and how the location of proceedings is often determined based on a lawyer’s perceptions of local courts and the collections practices imposed by each judge. The WSJ reported that some Indiana judges handle their courtroom practices differently by accommodating “frequent-filer” collection attorneys. For example, some have different practices for supervising meetings between creditor attorneys and debtor litigants or which cases actually go before the judge.
In response to that WSJ article, Marion Circuit Judge Lou Rosenberg began exploring the practices and procedures and in October 2011 the Indiana Lawyer reported that Rosenberg and the small claims judges had started taking action in response to the allegations. Collaboration increased between the different townships in order to create a more unified and consistent approach to how they handle cases and work with litigants. The courts also created a “rights and responsibilities” pamphlet to display and hand out in court to litigants to help ensure the public knows what is and isn’t allowed.
Now, the new task force will study the practices and procedures to determine if any changes are needed. The task force will hold public hearings in late February and early March in Perry and Pike townships to get feedback from small claims litigants and lawyers before issuing a report to the Supreme Court Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure. The task force may make recommendations on needed adjustments in the courts depending on the review and feedback, and the rules committee will then make final recommendations to the state justices. Any procedural rule changes would come from the Supreme Court.