Justice Courts in Texas are about to double their amount in controversy jurisdiction. SB 2342 and its companion in the house, HB 3336, increased justice court amount in controversy jurisdiction from $10,000 to $20,000. This change takes place on September 1, 2020.
This bill’s authors argued that increased access to Texas court systems was necessary due to frustration with the current system. Specifically, the authors cited the “ever-increasing cost of civil litigation” and Texans’ right to access to courts.
“Every Texan, no matter their background or economic status, has the right to access a court to peacefully resolve a legitimate civil dispute. The ever-increasing cost of civil litigation, however, limits the ability of many Texans to access the civil justice system, creating frustration with the system and, in some instances, causing unacceptable delays in resolution of disputes or leaving disputes unresolved altogether. C.S.S.B. 2342 addresses the issue of the increasing cost of litigation by allowing justice of the peace courts and many county courts at law to handle somewhat larger civil disputes and by providing that the Supreme Court of Texas is required to promulgate rules to expedite the resolution of civil disputes having $250,000 or less in controversy, which expands an existing requirement to expedite cases having less than $100,000 in controversy.”Bill Analysis – S.B. 2342
While this amendment will allow claims with a higher amount in controversy to be heard in justice courts, it does nothing to address the fact that access to a court system is not the same as having a fair shot at prosecuting or defending a claim. Additionally, and arguably problematically, this amendment increases an amount in controversy in a court system in which over 90% of the judges did not attend law school and only 7% of whom are licensed to practice law without requiring any additional training or education for those judges.
Consider a hypothetical plaintiff who files a claim in justice court for $18,000 (assume it is filed after this law is effective). Assume that this plaintiff files this claim pro-se (without a lawyer) in order to keep his or her costs down. At every step, the justice court tells the plaintiff that it cannot give him or her legal advice. The defendant in this case hires an attorney with 10 years of courtroom experience to defend against the plaintiff’s claims. The defendant does so because a potential $18,000 judgment more than justifies him or her hiring that lawyer.
As soon as the defendant hires a lawyer and the plaintiff continues pro-se, the plaintiff is in trouble.
The plaintiff is in trouble because “access” to the courts (the goal of the bill’s authors) is not the same as having a fair shot and equal chance at trial. Prosecuting a case pro-se with a licensed attorney on the other side is rarely, if ever, a fair fight. The Texas Supreme Court has held that a pro-se party his held to the same standards as a licensed attorney. This means that even though the pro-se plaintiff will almost certainly have nowhere near the training, experience, and know-how as the defending attorney, the court is required to hold them both to the same standard in relation to filing requirements, meeting deadlines, knowing the law, and understanding the rules of procedure.
A good analogy might be to give someone “access” to a football field and hand that person a football. That person is then told that all he has to do is get the football to the other end of the field. If he does that, he wins! However, there is just one catch – there will be one defender that the other team has hired – and that defender just so happens to be a professional NFL player with 10 years of experience on defense. Does anyone really believe that this hypothetical would be fair simply because the person with the ball was given access to the field?
Much work remains to be done in order to fix the justice gap in Texas. However, opening the door to the door to the peoples’ court a little wider by doubling the jurisdictional limit of justice courts does not solve the problem. If anything, it just creates more opportunities for pro-se litigants to be tackled.