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Sunday, August 04, 2013

Ind. Courts - "Small claims, bigger problems: Unique rules in Marion County raise questions of fairness"

Today's long story by Marisa Kwiatkowski and Alex Campbell adds new information about the problematic operations of the Marion County small claims courts - about which stories have been accumulating now for several years, back to this July 18, 2011 report in the Wall Street Journal, headed "In Debt Collecting, Location Matters".

So much has been written or broadcast about these problem courts that it is hard to keep track of all the areas which need change and what, if anything, has been addressed to date. From the story:

The Indiana State Bar Association and a special judicial task force have criticized the small claims courts for failing to properly notify defendants and having cozy relationships and special access for large-volume plaintiffs, such as Driver Solutions.

An Indianapolis Star investigation — triggered by a local attorney’s own report — showed many of those problems persist despite efforts to fix them. It also identified a loophole in state law that allows companies in Marion County to collect far more than the $6,000 small claims limit.

Last year, the Marion County Small Claims Task Force called for the small claims courts to be moved into the Marion Superior Court system, a shift that would require legislative action. Indiana Court of Appeals [former] Chief Judge John Baker said similar calls for reform, dating back to 1998, were ignored.

“When the legislature or those responsible don’t know of a problem, they can’t be expected to fix it,” Baker said. “But when group after group makes recommendations for changes and those recommendations are ignored, that’s unforgivable.” * * *

The Indiana Supreme Court created the Marion County Small Claims Task Force in January 2012 to investigate whether people involved in small claims cases in Marion County were afforded the same access to justice as those in other Indiana counties.

The task force uncovered serious problems with the management and operation of the small claims township courts, such as creditors’ attorneys receiving special access to court facilities in some courts, issues with properly notifying defendants who have been sued, defendants who were not fully informed of their rights and township trustees who interfered in court operations.

Changes were needed to make sure everyone was treated fairly, and to ensure “large-volume case filers do not appear to have special access to the courts,” the task force said.

Rosenberg said many new rules have been put in place to fix problems identified by the township judges and task force. Rosenberg, who advises the township judges, recently instituted a number of trial rules to alter how the small claims courts operate.

“The operation today is better than it was a few years ago,” he said. “But it can still get better, and it ought to.”

Baker, who was part of the small claims task force, said the township judges are doing the best they can with the resources they have been given. He recommended the courts become part of the Superior Court system, a plan that is dependent on legislative action.

“I’m not telling them how to run the city-county government,” Baker said. “I’m just telling them that the township courts should be held to the same standards and same rules as the other 91 counties.”

Sen. Michael Young, a Republican from Indianapolis whose district covers Wayne and Decatur townships, said he hasn’t heard of any problems from his constituents.

State Rep. Ed DeLaney, an Indianapolis Democrat who serves on two committees covering court issues, said he was aware of the task force’s report, but that lawmakers didn’t have substantial discussion about it in the 2013 session.

“I don’t think we were prepared to deal with it,” DeLaney said. “We may be now.”

ILB: It appears that Marion County legislators of both parties have little interest in changing the status quo. Not even a study committee was proposed during the last session. This seems like it would have been an ideal topic for the Indiana Commission on Courts, created by IC 33-23-10, which already has had three meetings this summer. Here are the minutes of the Commission's first meeting this year, when it considered the need for a new Vanderburgh County magistrate, at the request of Rep. Gail Riecken, and the issue of pretrial release and surety bonds.

Here is the May 1, 2012 ILB entry summarizing the excellent Report of the Task Force submitted by Judge John G. Baker and Judge Betty Barteau. It sets out specific, workable recommendations to address and remedy some of the current problems.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on August 4, 2013 10:47 AM
Posted to Indiana Courts