The Marion County Small Claims Task Force created by the Indiana Supreme Court has released its report outlining its investigation into problems within the county’s small claims courts. The report proposes three ways to address the problems, including incorporating the small claims courts into Marion Superior Court.
The task force, made up of Indiana Court of Appeals Judge John Baker and Senior Judge Betty Barteau, found “serious problems in the management and procedures” of the small claims courts. At a press conference Tuesday, Baker said the concerns surrounding practices in Marion County Small Claims courts could be taking place in other parts of the state, but the report only looked at Marion County. Marion County is unique in Indiana as it’s the only county that has its small claims courts funded by the townships instead of the county or state.
The task force was created this year in response to allegations, including that debt-collection creditors engage in forum shopping among the township courts, these creditors and other high-volume filers receive special treatment in the small claims courts, and that small claims judges are not always present in the courtroom for court proceedings.
After a series of public hearings held in February and March, the task force uncovered “significant and widespread problems,” according to the report, including some township trustees interfering with the operation of the courts and creditors’ attorneys having special access to or special relationships with some of the township court personnel.
The report outlines three potential plans to address these issues.
Plan A would move the small claims court into Marion Superior Court. Plan B would leave the courts as township courts, but they would undergo reform to make them independent from township trustees and improve access to justice. Plan C suggests changes that should be made regardless of whether plans A or B are adopted. The first two plans would require statutory changes; Plan C could be adopted without statutory or rule changes.
Baker said they proposed three plans because much of Plan A has already been suggested but never implemented by the Legislature, and they want to make sure some reform happens. Plan B was suggested by the small claims judges.
“We think Plan C is very good. It will have a big impact on how the court is operated,” Barteau said.
Plan C outlines court management and procedure reforms. It requires court employees be easily identifiable by litigants, dictates when the judge shall appear before the litigants, and mandates settlement agreements receive judicial review before approval. Under this plan, township judges would be provided consistent continuing legal education opportunities and court forms would be uniform and avoid legalese.
Litigants would be advised at the earliest point possible in the case about their right to request a change in venue. Plan C also suggested the creation of a small claims clinic at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law to allow law students to represent defendants.
Under plans A and B, the judges would become full-time judicial officers and be subject to the public reporting requirements for income from extrajudicial activities, and all appeals would go directly to the Court of Appeals. In Plan A, Marion County would fund the small claims division created under the Superior Court and the small claims division’s jurisdiction would include traffic infractions.
Under Plan B, townships would continue to be responsible for funding the courts, but the courts would create their own budgets that would be approved by the township boards, and the courts would maintain sole control over all court funds. The plan also dictates that the Supreme Court’s Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure should adopt a rule on township court venue to end forum shopping so that the defendant must be sued in the township where he or she lives or where the transaction or incident occurred.
The report was sent to the Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure, which has the option to take any action on these proposals. The report and appendix are available on the court’s website.