Courts and Law

County small-claims courts could receive overhaul

May 2, 2012

Marion County's small-claims courts could get a thorough makeover after a report released Tuesday detailed "significant and widespread problems" with how they're run.

The courts, which are in each of the county's nine townships, handle civil disputes involving less than $6,000.

One of the proposals calls for them to be absorbed into the Marion Superior Court system, which would require a change to Indiana law. Two other plans call for less extensive reforms.

The report will go to the Indiana Supreme Court's rules committee and legislators for review this summer.

Indiana Court of Appeals Judge John Baker, who was on the task force, said the courts hadn't been operating under best practices, mostly because the system's setup was flawed. But he said he expects that to change.

"We're convinced that the present judges of the Marion County small-claims courts are totally committed to correcting that," he said. "The persons that are now in the system are going to make sure that the system does it right."

The task force, which the state's highest court appointed earlier this year after receiving complaints about the small-claims courts, held public hearings in February and March and did its own evaluation of the courts to determine the extent of the problems.

Bringing the small-claims courts into the Marion Superior Court system would eliminate several of those problems, according to the report.

The county would be responsible for funding the courts, and the judges would have full-time positions, so they couldn't practice law. The courts would have to follow more rules, and they would have to keep more detailed records of the proceedings. It also would eliminate forum shopping by attorneys seeking the most receptive courts for their cases and would bring Marion County in line with the state's other 91 counties, which don't have a separate small-claims court system.

However, Marion Circuit Judge Louis Rosenberg, an adviser to the county's nine small-claims court judges, said he questions whether legislators would approve that plan because they haven't supported previous proposals for township government reform.

"What I'm concerned about is getting as many of the recommendations in practice as soon as possible," Rosenberg said, "and I think the easiest way to do that is 'Plan B.' "

"Plan B" in the report would require legislative action but would keep the courts in the townships. It still would make small-claims court judges full-time employees and would allow the courts to control their budgets. They also would have to keep better records.

The third plan the task force proposed—measures guiding people through the small-claims process—will be implemented regardless of whether the other proposals succeed.

For people who have been through the small-claims system, even small changes are welcome.

Southside resident Jake Tyler said he was blind-sided when he went through the small-claims court system. An attorney for his apartment complex convinced him and his roommate they didn't have a strong argument in their dispute over carpet damage. Tyler said they didn't know their rights, so they conceded.

He said he would support any reform to make the process clearer and make the courts seem more professional.

"We didn't understand what was going on, and it just felt wrong," he said. "That was the most frustrating part."

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