Save the small claims courts

While small claims courts make justice accessible to people from all walks of life, they’re also sometimes regarded disdainfully as pesky.

311_gavel (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The Knesset Law Committee decided last Wednesday to allow magistrate’s court registrars to function as judges and hand down rulings in all litigations involving less than NIS 50,000. This is part of a bill – geared to reorganize the lower courts in order to lighten the judges’ workload – that has already passed its first plenum reading. It now faces second and third readings but is presumed to be a shoo-in.
Yet this legislative overhaul will spawn an evident oddity. Registrars – appointed civil servants who aren’t professional judges – will be authorized to rule in cases involving larger sums than are handled in small claims courts. The latter, though overseen by magistrate’s court judges, only handle cases involving less than NIS 30,000. Thus someone not qualified to be a magistrate’s court judge will pass judgment on ostensibly bigger cases than magistrate’s court judges.
Far worse, though, is that this judicial absurdity is broadly regarded in legal circles not merely as enshrining irrationality but as sounding the deathknell for small claims courts. Rather than compete with these courts, the new arrangement, it is anticipated, will make them redundant until it eventually replaces them.
When small claims courts were first instituted here 35 years ago, they were hailed as a huge forward stride in protecting the rights of average citizens, who are frequently beset by problems that may be overriding for the individuals concerned but which entail relatively paltry sums.
Ordinary folks may not deal in millions, but their troubles and frustrations aren’t any less serious and severe. Justice isn’t a function of price tags. Indeed, Hebrew law instructs us not to lose sight of elementary precepts of justice. We are enjoined to remember that it’s din pruta kedin mea – a penny is as significant as a hundred. In other words, grievances of seemingly diminutive material consequence mustn’t be belittled.
That’s the cornerstone of small claims logic. As in most of the free world, here too small claims courts are meant to offer easier and less expensive means to resolve minor civil disputes in which large amounts of money aren’t at stake. Their procedures are simplified as compared to those of higher courts and allow litigants to represent themselves without legal counsel. Judgments are handed down more quickly.
The very indispensability of such a judicial forum, and its consequent popularity, had also become its downside. By nature, these courts attract numerous nags and cranks who take advantage of the inexpensive litigation option. This appreciably increases the judges’ workloads.
The upshot is that while small claims courts fulfill an important social function and make justice accessible to people from all walks of life, they’re also sometimes regarded disdainfully as pesky and of no groundbreaking import. Judges often see small claims duty as punishment.
THERE HAS been plenty of vociferous agitation to do away with this jurisdiction altogether. But justice will not be served thus, certainly not from the vantage point of ordinary individuals who sometimes find themselves beset by big business concerns and simply cannot afford full-fledged court battles. Suing in a magistrate’s court is incomparably costlier than in small claims court. Once the new legislation is enacted, however, the danger is that only the rich will be able to afford to take their cases to a proper judge.
Furthermore, rather than lower the judges’ workload, this would only increase the burden placed on registrars, who are significantly more overloaded than judges. Registrars, who specialize in technical tasks, already deal with at least 50 assignments per day. It’s doubtful they’d devote all the serious and sincere attention needed to “minor” suits brought in by members of the public.
What would happen to small claims litigants? Many would avoid suing, because, as in pre-1976 days, it just wouldn’t pay. This would embolden offenders who pilfer small sums. The absence of low-cost legal remedies would also be sure to encourage frustrated citizens to take the law into their own hands. This would be a giant step backwards for Israeli justice. It may be small money, but the same cardinal principles are at stake.