Holcomb signs bills standardizing small claims cap, indigency

New court-related legislation has been signed into law in Indiana, giving judges guidance on indigency determinations and setting the statewide cap for small claims dispute awards at $8,000.

Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb on Saturday signed Senate Enrolled Act 302 and House Enrolled Act 1313.

Senate Enrolled Act 302, authored by Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Ogden Dunes, creates a statutory list of factors for judges to consider when making indigency determinations. Those factors include a defendant’s:

  • Assets
  • Income
  • Necessary expenses
  • Eligibility for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP
  • Eligibility for the federal and state Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, program, except 21 U.S.C. 862a(a)
  • Eligibility for another need-based public assistance program

Born of the Interim Study Committee on Corrections and Criminal Code, the idea for SEA 302, Tallian said, came from the fact that judges in different counties consider difference factors when making indigency determinations on a defendant’s ability to pay for a public defender or other services. That’s led to what is sometimes called “justice by geography” – a person being found indigent in one county but being found able to pay in another county under the same circumstances.

“The previous system was simply unfair,” Tallian said in a statement after the bill’s signing. “Someone could end up hung out to dry without a defense lawyer, where another person in the same situation just a few miles down the road would receive a court-appointed attorney, all because the rules varied from county to county.

“Now we can be assured that every court in Indiana follows the same set of rules.”

House Enrolled Act 1313 was brought by Rep. John Young, R-Franklin. His legislation covers a variety of court-related matters, the most significant of which, he said, is the raising of the small claims filing cap from $6,000 to $8,000 statewide.

Marion Superior Judge Heather Welch, who testified on the bill before lawmakers, said the Indianapolis courts have been using the $8,000 limit for several years. Raising the filing cap statewide will increase uniformity and will benefit lawyers and nonlawyers who frequently litigate in small claims courts.

Welch also testified in favor of the provision of HEA 1313 that explicitly gives magistrate judges the same powers of judges.

Prior to Young’s bill, Welch said, there were conflicting statutes on the powers of magistrate judges: one that gave them all powers except judicial mandate, and one that enumerated powers. HEA 1313 adopts the former, giving magistrates all judicial power except judicial mandate.

Also as it relates to Marion County, HEA 1313 allows the Indianapolis courts to operate under three divisions: civil, criminal and family. That change is made as part of the move to the Marion County Community Justice Center, which, under HEA 1313, is where the Indianapolis judges will hold court.

Finally, HEA 1313 sunsets the judicial technology oversight committee, a move supported by Indiana Supreme Court Justice Steven David. According to David, now that Indiana has implemented electronic filing and the Odyssey case management system statewide, JTOC has become obsolete.

HEA 1313 was effective upon passage, while SEA 302 takes effect July 1.

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