Zimmerman: Small claims court really works. Don't cut back
Tucked inside the dilapidated concrete, Soviet-era architecture of the New York City Civil Court at 111 Centre St., there's an unexpected oasis of legal rationality and calm.
New York City's Small Claims Court, where I serve as a volunteer arbitrator, has little of the histrionics you see on "The People's Court." Rather, it's the scene of mundane, but poignant, urban vignettes. These are the disputes that form the fabric of everyday life: tenant v. landlord, car owner v. garage mechanic, podiatrist v. deadbeat patient.
After a case is heard (by either the judge on duty or by a volunteer arbitrator), both parties receive a decision in the mail within a few days. The maximum a plaintiff can seek is $5,000.
The practice of law has become increasingly contentious, but Small Claims Court litigants are invariably respectful of the legal process and of each other. They don't yell and scream, or interrupt. They don't threaten each other. It's moving to see civics in action among people who just want a chance to be heard.
Unfortunately, their chances to be heard have decreased dramatically. Two years ago, Small Claims Court in Manhattan was cut back from four nights a week to one. It was temporarily increased to two nights a week last year, but is scheduled to go back to a single night in April. Small Claims Courts in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens will also be conducted one night a week, and in Staten Island, just once a month.
In Manhattan, litigants once had to wait about five weeks for their day in court. When the schedule is reduced again on April 1, you'll have to wait up to eight months to face off against the dry cleaner who ruined your dress.
These cuts save very little money. Trimming Manhattan Small Claims Court from four nights a week to one saves $675,000 out of an annual statewide court budget of $2.3 billion.
Any private-sector auditor worth her salt could find waste in state government totaling $675,000 in as much time as it takes to say, "procurement inefficiencies." Yet, the decision has been made to decimate a program that provides citizens an efficient way to resolve disputes with dignity and finality, and that -- unlike many things in government -- works really, really well.
What a shame.