In health care it is very common that persons who suffer from long term conditions or illness, or go through traumatic experiences, join self help support groups. Doctors often recommend support groups to help persons learn about self care, increase prescription compliance, and improve the overall status of their patients. Everyone understands that a support group does not replace medical care or medication. It is one additional tool that doctors and their patients can use to help individuals and their families cope with illness and loss. People who go to the self help groups know that the persons facilitating the groups may not be doctors or nurses, and that the participants are not providing medical treatment.
Although this idea has been mentioned in the legal context, I have not yet come across such legal self help groups, until this past weekend, when I reading this article about how consumers are helping each other online with small claims cases against big corporations. (It seems like it is more of an informational process of model pleading sharing through Internet posting than detailed one-on-one assistance, which might well raise unauthorized practice of law and confidentiality issues.)
I am hoping to hear more news about this emerging movement because it may be the beginning of non-attorney led legal self help support groups for certain types of cases. It is logical that this is starting in the small claims context, because in most states attorneys are not allowed in large part to keep the process, simple, and fast. Most small claims courts have limits to the amount of damages that can be asked, generally somewhere between $5,000 to $10,000. In some states lawyers can only enter the case at the appeal stage, keeping the initial hearings informal and less expensive. After all, who can afford to pay a retainer to recover a small amount?
However this may not be the case in every small claims court — see this article on problems in Indiana.
Legal non profits that are already doing consumer cases, may want to monitor this emerging movement. Groups that are doing community lawyering may be interested in figuring out what role legal aid groups could play in developing this type of community capacity in a way that it meets the standards in the practice of law.
Small claims court is often the province of businesses suing individuals, for example, credit card companies, hospitals, and landlords to collect. If consumers banded together and used online tools to help and support each other in cases with similar companies using similar practices, this could rapidly change.
In the context of online forms, many legal aid groups are now making guided interviews to create self help pleadings available for free using LawHelp Interactive to power up the forms. http://www.lawhelpinteractive.org.
Because individuals often find themselves as defendants in the small claims setting, making information and online tools available to help them respond are as important as making the pleadings available. States that are now making small claims forms available online for free using LawHelp Interactive to power them up, include Illinois, Idaho, Colorado, Kentucky, Minnesota, and Maine. Idaho Legal Services has created a very good collection of online forms all related to small claims forms. They can be found here: http://www.idaholegalaid.org/SelfHelp/SmallClaims
The Legal Services Corporation is accepting letters of interest for its Technology Initiative Grants, and the letters are due 3/12. http://tig.lsc.gov/. Groups interested in figuring out how to support low income litigants use small claims courts to recover security deposits from landlords, recover damages from car repair shops and dealers, phone vendors, furniture stores, pay day loans, should consider using online tools to develop and nurture a forum where lay persons can share and support each other through the small claims process and the collection of any judgments once their cases are won. Although the awards are small, in the eyes of a family of four making less than $28,000, a small amount could make a huge difference. To understand the impact that a judgment of $2000 could have on a family struggling to make ends meet, this webcast that Mike Monahan from Georgia Legal Services shared is helpful. http://old.usccb.org/cchd/povertyusa/tour.htm
Moreover, one or two awards does not add up to a lot, but if you had 100s or 1000s of people obtaining similar recoveries, that could be become a significant amount of resources returning to low income and vulnerable populations. For example, doing some back of the envelope calculations, let’s say that in a large urban area, the average rent for a 2 bedroom two bath apartment is $2000.00 per month. Let’s say that landlords collect 1 month of rent as security deposit. Let’s say that there are 1.2 Million low income families residing in that area, and that 70% of them are renters and so 840,000 are renting an apartment. Let’s assume that there is small but consistent group of landlords or management companies that routinely do not return security deposits —1%, so that 8400 families are losing their $2000 security deposit at least once a year. Since on average 60% of individual cases tend to be won by individuals in small claims, the total amount coming back from landlords going back to the low income households in that area would be $10,080,000! That is only the monetary gains. The amount of self empowerment those tenants would feel and the perhaps naïve hope that the repeat offenders would change their practices and instead return the security deposits rather than have judgments enforced —highlight how powerful such a project could be.
Since courts also struggle to serve non-attorneys looking for information and referrals in small claims courts, courts could also consider joining with legal non profits and experiment. Courts need to remain neutral, so part of their approach would probably need to include landlords and tenants. The State Justice Institute will be accepting proposals at least twice more this year, the next deadline being May 1, 2012 so there may be opportunities to design innovative projects/collaborative around small claims. http://www.sji.gov/
If readers of this blog have seen lay legal support groups for small claims cases, or in other areas of law where consumer oriented and directed self help is taking place using online tools, and where it is done well within the ethical boundaries of the practice of law please share them. This is one trend I want to learn more about and watch as it may develop.