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San Jacinto News-Times - Local News

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Small claims court abolished
San Jacinto News- Times

COLDSPRING – A new state law from the recent legislative session will abolish small claims courts in Texas effective May 2013. Texas Governor Rick Perry signed House Bill 79 July 19, which will allow justices of the peace to transfer their small claims dockets to their justice courts. “Since 1953 when the Small Claims Court Act was enacted, the Texas Legislature has provided a means for the ordinary citizen to have an inexpensive and uncomplicated proceeding to resolve small disputes. It is a simple procedure free from the complicated rules of the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure and Texas Rules of Evidence, as these rules expressly do not apply to the small claims courts,” said President Elect of the Texas Justice Court Judge’s Association (TJCJA) Greg Magee who is also a San Jacinto County justice of the peace and an attorney. “The Small Claims Court Act was designed to provide a fair forum to resolve small disputes, in a forum that the parties need not be trained in law nor have knowledge of trial procedures. A party simply has to complete a fi ll-in-the blank form as designed by the legislature, pay a small fee and their case will be heard before the judge. Neither party has to have an attorney. In addition, neither party has to worry about fairness because an attorney may represent the other party, because under the legislative rule, the judge is to develop the facts of the case and the Rules of Civil Procedure and Rules of Evidence do not apply. The pro se litigant is insured a fair and equal understanding of the procedures. Each party simply tells their side of the story to the judge,” Magee explained. Today the justice of the peace sits as judge of two courts, the small claims court and justice court. The judge is to develop the case with no rules applying to the small claims court. In the justice court, all rules apply just as they do in district courtroom. “This bill abolishes the small claims court and moves all cases into the justice court,” Magee said. “The small claims court hears cases for money judgments only and the justice court hears cases to recover property, evictions and in any case that an attorney wanted the rules to apply,” Magee said. “According to the sponsors of the bill, the intent is for all cases filed in justice court to be considered small claim cases. However, no one today knows what type of case that might be because the Texas Supreme Court has until May 2013 to define what constitutes a small claims case. The Texas Supreme Court is also to develop rules to be followed in those cases,” Magee said. “Not knowing what the rules and types of cases might be and having rules for small claims cases is why we (TJCJA) could not support HB 79. It’s a bill that may be stripping the fairness from the pro se litigant (representing themselves) and giving the advantage to any party represented by an attorney,” Magee said. Magee said he doesn’t believe the sponsors of the bill understood the potential disadvantage to the pro se litigant the bill will cause. “It is well established in Texas that when there are rules of procedures in place, pro se litigants are held to the same standards as licensed attorneys and must know and comply with the rules of procedure,” Magee said. “The playing field will become unequal and the person who can afford to hire an attorney will have the advantage. In the people’s court, you never had to worry if the other side had an attorney, but now, we may be closer to the old saying, ‘Justice to all who can afford it.’” Judge Magee made several trips to Austin during the regular and special sessions to meet with legislators and to testify before House and Senate Committees. HB 79 was a bill that has restructured the entire Texas court system, according to Magee. “Our small claims and justice courts were just a small portion of the bill,” Magee said. For three sessions, Senator Robert Duncan of Lubbock tried to restructure the courts. This restructuring is based on a 2007- 2008 Task Force Report that had indicated the Texas Civil Court System should be a three-tier system. Currently the system is comprised of the district courts, county courts at law, constitutional county courts, justice courts, small claims courts and to a small percent, municipal courts. This task force envisioned the civil court system to be comprised of only the district courts, county courts at law and the justice court, according to Magee. “Senator Duncan and other legislators supporting the bill constantly stated that the majority of the justices of the peace wanted a change and wanted the small claims court to be abolished because the people of Texas are confused. When we questioned them about this, they always referred to the Task Force Report. It took me weeks to locate the report; it was well hidden on the Internet. During my testimony to the senate committee, I pointed out to Senator Duncan that the language of his bill was in direct conflict with the task force report. This task force committee had surveyed the 819 justices of the peace and 73.5 percent said no change was needed and to leave the small claims courts and justice courts alone. After my testimony, the link to the report no longer worked,” Magee said. “Senator Duncan and the other legislators supporting the bill stated that the justices of the peace were well represented on this committee. I pointed out to the senate committee that the task force committee had 50 members, 48 were attorneys and the other two were public members on the State Bar Board. There was only one justice of the peace on the committee and he was an attorney. I suggested that the everyday justice of the peace was not represented. Only a small percentage of justices of the peace are also attorneys, Magee said.” “Our association (TJCJA) tried to explain to legislators that the justices of the peace are the ones that are in a better position to know what is needed to improve their courts, not a group of attorneys. Attorneys function on rules and they do not like coming into a court and hearing the judge say that the decisions will not be based on rules. It keeps the parties equal and that is what small claims court has always been about,” Magee said. “While we met opposition from many different entities, we did have some good support on our side,” Magee said. TJCJA is extremely proud of Representative Randy Weber of Pearland and local Senator Robert Nichols. “These two men fought hard in their respective chambers for the justices the peace and voted against the bill. Senator Nichols challenged Senator Duncan on the senate floor and made an amendment to remove the language regarding the justices of the peace. Senator Nichols showed great support for us, however, the amendment failed 13-18,” Magee said


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