By Lauren Casey
The Statehouse File
An investigation of the Marion County Small Claims Courts has found serious problems with the management and procedures of the township-based judicial system.
A task force created by the Indiana Supreme Court released a report Tuesday following a four-month investigation of the practices inside the courtrooms.
The report included three plans to fix the problems with a goal of making the court system more just and fair to citizens in the county.
“The problems presented by the Marion County Small Claims Courts have been evident for many years and need to be addressed now,” wrote Indiana Appeals Court judges John Baker and Betty Barteau, who oversaw the investigation. “We hope this report will not only stimulate creative discussions but lead quickly to aggressive reforms.”
The Indiana Supreme Court earlier this year directed the task force to look into allegations of forum shopping and lack of judicial independence in small claims courts that are located in each of Marion County’s nine townships.
After conducting three public hearings in the county and gathering a wide variety of information on the court system, the task force found a range of serious issues in the courts that prevent litigants from receiving equal treatment.
The findings show that the small claims courts often lack transparency in their finances and sometimes fail to properly report and manage their funding. The township governments’ records showed contradictions with the reports sent to the Indiana Supreme Court.
The report also suggests that some of the small claims courts appear to be an arm of debt collectors by allowing closed door settlement meetings in cubicles between the creditors’ attorneys and the defendant – often with no judge present or even in the same building.
“Debtor-defendants have complained that they were not informed upon arrival at a township court that they have a right to have their cases heard by the judge,” the report said. “Therefore, many defendant-debtors believe that they are required to negotiate and settle with creditors’ attorneys.”
Also non-English speaking litigants faced obstacles with none of the literature available in other languages.
The task force discovered problems with the venues for the small claims courts that led to forum shopping, a process where debt-collectors can take their claim to the township in the county that was most “collector-friendly”.
This shopping by the collectors resulted in transportation problems for litigants and financial obstacles for judges who make efforts to be fair and review settlement agreements, the report said.
The task force offered three plans to change the systems.
The first option would remove small claims courts from township government and incorporate them into the Marion Superior Court. The plan would create a small claims division.
The second option would reform the existing system by allowing the townships courts to remain independent but would require the General Assembly to let them set their own budgets and send appeals of their decisions to state appeals courts.
The second option also calls for the funding of a small claims court administrator for oversight as well as new rules to end forum-shopping within the courts.
The third option is a complementary plan of reforms to address each of the problems cited in the report by the task force. It would be implemented in addition to either the first or second options.
Among the proposed changes in option three: Judges would be required to inform litigants of their rights and approve all settlement agreements.
The task force acknowledged that the township court system is sometimes the only contact citizens have with the judicial system and there it should be effective and accessible.
“Caseloads are high and continue to grow every year,” the report concludes. “Nevertheless, changes are necessary to ensure that all litigants receive equal treatment and that large-volume case filers do not appear to have special access to the courts.”
Lauren Casey is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.