Sunday, May 20, 2007

Future of small-claims courts is uncertain

By DAVE LIEBER - Star-Telegram staff writer
The future of the Texas small-claims court system is up in the air because of pending legislation in Austin that could radically change the makeup of one of the strongest pro-consumer tools in the state.

A bill passed by the Senate and now before the House in the Legislature's final full week would eliminate the existing small-claims court system.

It asks the Texas Supreme Court to rewrite the rules for handling small-claims court procedures, meaning there's no way to know what could happen.

Supporters of the bill, including some justices of the peace -- who serve as small-claims judges in Texas -- say change is needed because there are few uniform rules governing small-claims court.

JPs have tremendous leeway, meaning rulings can vary wildly from court to court.

Others say such leeway is part of what makes the system effective at helping resolve consumers' problems.

"They need to leave small-claims court intact," said former Tarrant County Justice of the Peace Sandy Prindle, a past president of the Justices of the Peace and Constables Association of Texas.

Small-claims courts were created 54 years ago.

One supporter at the time described it as "a far-reaching poor man's court" that would settle "thousands of little bills," according to news reports then.

The original filing fee of $2 is now $10.

People who file small-claims lawsuits do not need a lawyer and can present their own evidence.

Senate Bill 1204 would completely eliminate the chapter in state law that deals with small-claims court.
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