People are also mistaken as to what is “justice.” Most folks believe that justice means what is right and fair to them. To the judge, however, justice means what is right and fair as perceived through the lens of the facts presented (evidence) and as construed by the law books in conjunction with previous cases (precedent). Yes, Virginia, the law is very complicated.
The law is so complicated that law students must study full time for three years and then take a grueling two-day examination. Wannabe attorneys are smart, educated and scared to death of taking the dreaded bar exam, and for good reason. According to one source, the recent pass rate for first-time takers was 69 percent and for repeaters, 18 percent. It is no wonder that most people find it difficult to work their way through the court system, even in small-claims court.
The good news is that there have been many steps taken to achieve access to the courts through the small-claims court. First, there are statewide mandatory forms that are intended to achieve uniformity in a “user-friendly” format. These forms are readily available online at www.courts.ca.gov/forms.
Second, the limit for an individual to bring a claim in small-claims court (except for certain claims) was increased from $7,500 to $10,000 beginning Jan. 1. Additionally, the cost of filing a small-claims action is $30 to $100, compared with $225 to $370 for regular civil cases up to $25,000. (The fee varies according to the amount of the claim.)
One of the greatest benefits to folks who wish to use small-claims court is the Small Claims Advisor. This is a free service provided by Stanislaus County Superior Court to assist the people in their quest for justice. SCA will help you determine the proper forms to fill out, as well as how to fill them out, if there are questions. SCA will also give guidance on how to properly serve the paperwork on the defendant(s). The role of SCA is to assist small-claims litigants in winding their way through the oftentimes complex judicial process, and it’s free.
Another free service available is that of mediation. Although mediators are available on the day of the small-claims trial, mediation is available before you even get to court. The mediators do not give legal advice. What they do is help both sides focus on the facts and legal issues and come to an agreement that is acceptable to everyone involved in the dispute.
If you take advantage of mediation before your court date, the mediator can take the time to allow all parties to fully hash out what is bothering them — a luxury that small-claims court, with its crush of cases, just doesn’t have. Mediation allows the people involved to be in more control of the resolution than when a judge is involved.
The Stanislaus County Mediation Center is a program of Project Sentinel Inc. and is an invaluable resource to our community. They can be reached at 236-1577 or www.stanislausmediation.org.
Do you have a complaint? Then take it to court — small-claims court. Or, better yet, mediate.
• Nancy Williamsen has served as a superior court commissioner for the Stanislaus County Superior Court for the past 12 years. As commissioner, she acts as a temporary judge. The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Stanislaus County Superior Court.