Raise the Small Claims Court Limit

Today the NYTimes ran an article, entitled Rule Change Could Ease ‘Justice Gap’ for the Poor,
with the lede:
Lawyers who work for big corporations in New York but are not licensed to practice law in the state will be allowed to do pro bono work under a new rule meant to ease an acute shortage of legal representation for the poor, the state’s chief judge, Jonathan Lippman, announced on Monday.
It followed:
Providing help to the indigent in civil cases has become Judge Lippman’s signature issue, and will likely underpin his legacy after he retires in 2015. He set aside $55 million in the current budget for such services, and has taken steps to encourage lawyers to take on more civil pro bono cases, requiring law students to put in 50 hours of volunteer work before taking the bar exam and making law firms file biannual reports showing how much charitable work they have done.
I will not in any way disagree that this is a very serious need, nor that these are not extremely laudable accomplishments and initiatives. However, I'd like to point out that there is also a tremendous problem of access to the courts for the middle class here in New York State, and it can be traced almost directly to one, single factor here in New York State:

The maximum claim in small claims court is $5,000, except in Town and Village Courts, where it is $3,000. For claims above that amount, the New York Courts page offers the following friendly advice:
Q. Do I need a lawyer for these types of cases?
A. You are allowed to handle a case without a lawyer, although these kinds of cases are often complicated. It's up to you to decide. A person going to court without a lawyer is called "self-represented" or "pro se."
In other words, you're pretty much on your own. Additionally, according to CourtStatistics.org, here are some of the average costs of civil litigation taken to verdict:
  • Automobile: $43,000
  • Premises Liability (slip and fall, injuries in offices, etc.): $54,000
  • Real Property: $66,000
  • Employment: $88,000
  • Contract: $91,000
  • Malpractice: $122,000
Let's compare this to the historical limits of Small Claims court here in New York City†, adjusted for inflation to 2013 dollars using the Inflation Calculator from the BLS:
YearAmount2013 Dollars
At this point it should be patently obvious that there is a huge, huge problem of access to the legal system for anyone but the wealthy. Simply raising the small claims limit to something more sensible, say, $25,000, as it is in Tennessee, or maybe even $50,000, would greatly increase access to the civil court system for many tens of thousands. Small claims court is highly informal and very forgiving to pro se litigants. Supreme Court, however, is not.

Quite simply, the problem is this: If you have a legal claim that is more than $5,000, but less than $100,000, it may be all but impossible to find a lawyer to take your case.

If we want to increase access to the legal system, rather than simply throwing more lawyers at the problem, how about we lower the cost of entry instead?

† From the Supplementary Practice Comments to McKinney's, NY City Civ. Ct. Act § 1801. Small Claims Defined


  1. This is a most important issue and proposal. Is there anything being done to formally lift the small claims limit?


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