Small Claims Courts: An Overview and Recommendation

Small claims courts have been in operation in the United States for over sixty years. They were established to function as inexpensive, efficient, and convenient forums for resolving claims which could not be brought economically in ordinary civil courts because of the costs and delays accompanying ordinary civil court proceedings. Small claims courts also reduce administrative delays by resolving a large volume of claims. For example, the District of Columbia small claims court processed 30,000 claims in 1973. Despite the amount of litigation handled by small claims courts, commentators have expressed much dissatisfaction with their operation and practice. Some commentators urge abandonment of small claims courts and development of alternative means of redress, especially for consumer disputes. While much of the criticism leveled at small claims courts is justified, abandonment of these courts as a mechanism for the redress of small claims would be undesirable. This note will discuss ways in which small claims courts can be reformed to become more effective mechanisms for the resolution of small disputes. A model small claims court statute incorporating the suggested changes will be presented.