Justice for All

Upcoming changes to justice of the peace courts meant to simplify the court process for users

Ever since the Lionheart (King Richard I of England) first commissioned his knights to settle disputes among his people and ensure that peace was kept through his country in 1195, humans have turned to their fellow man to help settle small disputes among friends, family and aquaintances. 
Though the title “justice of the peace” didn’t come until King Edward III in 1361, the idea of justice of the peace courts has been basically the same for more than 900 years. Justice of the Peace courts were created for the ordinary everyman, to not be overly complex or confusing, to spare the higher courts from having to hear civil and misdemeanor cases that could be handled closer to home.
Over the years, justice of the peace courts got complicated. Cases in Texas were divided into evictions, small claims courts and justice courts, with the three types of courts having different sets of rules and procedures for judges, plaintiffs and defendants to follow. Unlike small claims courts, which give judges leeway to determine the facts of a case, justice courts — the only avenue a citizen can take if he or she wants to file a lawsuit regarding the return of property valued at less than $10,000 (televisions, cars, bikes) — had to follow the Rules of Civil Procedure and Evidence, a complex set of standards that might harm or turn off the ordinary everyman just trying to recover his television set from his brother.
But justice courts are going to get simpler beginning Aug. 31, when new rules adopted by the Supreme Court of Texas will go into effect. The rules combine justice court cases and small claims court cases into just one court. Though the court will be named the justice court, it will follow rules very similar to what small claims courts have always followed.

“We wanted to take the opportunity to make the justice court easy for both plaintiffs and defendants — easy to understand, hard to mess up, and get it to where cases are actually heard on their merits instead of on procedure,” said Tarrant County Justice of the Peace Russell Casey, who chaired the Supreme Court’s Task Force for Rules in Small Claims Cases and Justice Court Proceedings.

Other justices of the peace on the 15-member task force included Tarrant County JP Ralph Swearingin, Jr., Harris County JP Russell C. Ridgway, Williamson County JP Judy Schier Hobbs, Dallas County JP Albert Cercone, Houston County JP Ronnie Jordan, Harris County JP JoAnn Delgado, Brazoria County JP Gordon Starkenburg, San Jacinto County JP Greg Magee and Midland County JP David Cobos.  

The Supreme Court’s new rules are the result of legislation that passed in 2011. HB 79 reorganized the courts and required the Supreme Court to create new sets of rules of civil procedures for small claims cases and for eviction proceedings. 

Casey said he feels the new rules will help give residents better access to the courts.

“We have come to a point where, as a society, we are very litigious. The idea of everything turning into litigation is a constant worry,” he said. “But at the same time, we also feel that the courts are not necessarily accessible to help us with our own plights. Think about how much money are you willing to spend, how much trouble, where is that dollar value that you would want to be at to actually use the courts to help you collect a debt? People feel that the courts are inaccessible, that they are complicated, that they need an attorney just to fill out the paperwork associated with things. They feel sometimes they may not necessarily be able to actually have the case tried on its merits.”

Having a court that most would-be users don’t understand or cannot follow hurts the justice system, he added, as citizens begin to feel or perceive that the judicial branch’s role in acting as a buffer between the government and the people has been compromised.

Having to dismiss or rule on cases based on procedure wasn’t just frustrating for plaintiffs and defendants, but for judges as well, he added.

“If you wanted to present a receipt from Wal-Mart in justice court, according to the Rules of Civil Procedure, that would need to be testified to. Someone with actual personal knowledge, maybe even someone from Wal-Mart, would have to testify that that was a receipt from them,” he said, adding that there were a lot of traps in the justice court that work better in higher courts when litigants are represented by skilled attorneys. “Now, the judge can look at it and say, ‘yeah, that’s a Wal-Mart receipt.’ Don’t get me wrong, every rule has it’s own place, but we just feel that those rules are for more complex litigation.”

Since the new rules closely model the old rules from the small claims court, there shouldn’t be a lot of headache involved for judges when it comes to transitioning on Aug. 31. Most justices of the peace have already received training on the rules from the Texas Justice Court Training Center (TJCTC).

In fact, informing the public about the changes to the rules so that local courts lose the stereotype of being too inaccessible or overly complex will most likely be the biggest and most important challenge judges face.

“Most people who were not actively involved in the legal system were not aware of what was there before, so they are not going to really see that anything has changed,” Casey said, adding that if the public is informed, there might be more cases in court — but those cases should move faster through the system. “The cases will be handled in a much more expedited fashion, so the actual man-hour time involved in processing a case through the system will go down.” 

Casey said the task force took its job as an opportunity to really make positive changes to the state’s justice system. 

“I do not think that I personally will ever have another opportunity in my life to make the world a better place as much as I think these changes will,” he said. “It’s small and it’s internal and a lot of people will never ever see it, in fact most people will never see it, but it’s big on an internal level of being able to ensure that justice is done, that we are actually addressing the issues properly, instead of being lost in legal maneuvering. I think that gradually over time, the reputation of the courts will be much more positive. That helps everybody out.” ✯​