small claims court, Denver, study


This Article presents empirical data on the operation of the small claims court in the city of Denver. The study underlying this Article evaluated the court in terms of (1) users’ reactions, (2) the correctness of outcomes (recognizing that a determination of the underlying truth may be impossible), (3) the correctness of procedures (allowing for the informality that has been characterized as essential for their operation), and (4) the effective power of the court in terms of enforcement of results. The study shows that small claims courts may be paradigmatic of governmental responses to social problems. They do some good work and some bad work; people’s impressions of the work they do may be significantly skewed; no one knows how helpful their existence is to the entire group of people whose welfare they are intended to improve; and it is hard to determine whether the individuals they actually do serve are better off for having been able to use their processes. This study answers two fundamental questions about small claims courts: (1) Who usually wins? (2) Do victors collect their judgments? The rate of victory for plaintiffs who file claims and appear in court is eighty-five percent. Of winning plaintiffs, fifty-five percent never collect any part of their judgments. Overall, among victorious plaintiffs, the judgment amounts collected equal thirty-one percent of the total amounts awarded. Thus, as has been the pattern in other small claims courts studied, the operation of the court must be viewed in the context of overwhelming advantage to plaintiffs at the trial stage and of significant disadvantage to plaintiffs after trial. This Article explores these issues, and some empirical data related to them. Part II explains Colorado's small claims court history and legislative background. Part III discusses the court’s current operation. Part IV develops a critique of the court’s current status. This Article concludes by proposing legislative action to improve the efficacy and usefulness of the Colorado small claims court.

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