Small Claims Court

TO THE poor, justice is elusive, distant and expensive. The courts smack of intimidating technicalities, procedural complexities, bottomless lawyers’ fees, and inexplicable delays. Rather than bring their woes to the system, they simply bear the injustice. In all, the poor become prey to the importuning of extremists and rebels, who promise instant vindication without the intricacies of due process.

Simple procedure. To solve or minimize this perennial problem, our Supreme Court turned a page in judicial reform and implemented a system of filing and prosecuting small claims, involving no lawyers, no formal pleadings and no strict legal rules of evidence. What’s more, the judge is encouraged to issue the decision after just one hearing! Previously unheard of in this country, it’s the dream of the legally illiterate.

No new courts were created and no new judges were specially appointed. The Supreme Court simply promulgated “The Rule on Small Claims Cases” which authorized the first level courts—Metropolitan Trial Courts, Municipal Trial Courts in cities, Municipal Trial Courts and Municipal Circuit Trial Courts—to act concurrently as the Small Claims Courts or SCC. (I call them the Poor Man’s Courts.)

The Rule on Small Claims covers suits in which the claim does not exceed P100,000, excluding interests and costs. It includes (a) purely civil cases or (b) the civil aspect of criminal actions or (c) actions to enforce barangay amicable settlements, or arbitration awards involving money claims.

To take advantage of this simple, lawyer-less system, the plaintiff merely files a “Statement of Claim,” using ready-made forms provided in the Rule. In turn, the defendant must answer the claim, within 10 days from receipt of summons issued by the SCC, by filing a verified “Response,” also using ready-made forms.

Both parties may ask the assistance of the court staff in accomplishing the forms. Litigants must attach certified photocopies of the documents upon which they base their suits, affidavits of witnesses, and other evidence to support their allegations or defenses. Evidence not submitted together with the Claim or the Response will not be accepted at the hearing.

No lawyers please. To prevent delays and minimize legal technicalities, the Rule prohibits certain pleadings, like motions to dismiss, or for postponement, or for extension of time to file pleadings, or for new trial, or for reconsideration of a judgment, or for reopening of the trial; and petition for relief from judgment, third-party complaints, and interventions, and the like. Significantly, even petitions for certiorari, mandamus and prohibition are disallowed. At bottom, the Rule emphasizes the summary character of the procedure and the finality of the judgment.

Also prohibited is the appearance of lawyers at the hearing—unless the lawyer is one of the parties. However, both the plaintiff and the defendant may consult legal counsel, if they so desire, before or after the hearing, especially if there are legal issues like lack of jurisdiction over the subject matter, prescription (claim is time-barred), or improper venue (claim is filed in the wrong place).

If no Response is filed on time and the defendant fails to appear at the hearing, the SCC shall render judgment on the same day, as may be warranted by the facts proved by the plaintiff. Likewise, on the date and time set for the hearing, the parties must appear in court, either personally or through a representative (not a lawyer) authorized via a special power of attorney.

If the plaintiff fails to attend the hearing, his/her claim will be dismissed without prejudice to its re-filing. The defendant’s failure to appear will have the same effect as the failure to file a Response, unless there are two or more defendants pleading a common defense and one happens to appear at the hearing.

Principal purpose. The hearing involves few legal technicalities, the principal purpose being to encourage the parties to reach an amicable settlement. At the hearing, the judge first conducts “Judicial Dispute Resolution,” which is essentially a method of persuading the parties to settle the litigation via the known techniques of mediation, conciliation, early neutral evaluation and the like.

If no settlement is reached, the case moves into the “Judicial Decision Phase.” The judge conducts the proceedings in an informal and expeditious manner aimed at rendering substantial justice. Unlike ordinary cases in which the judge is passive and allows the parties to do most of the talking, the judge here takes an interventionist role by actively eliciting evidence from the litigants.

The judge is expected to lend a helping hand, but must remain strictly neutral. Looking for common grounds between the parties, the magistrate must ensure a level playing field while protecting the weak, so each party has a fair opportunity to present his or her case and to challenge that of the adverse party, thus making it easy for the parties to accept the judicial decision that would eventually be rendered.

The hearing is to be terminated in one day, and a judgment issued on the same day. Once rendered, the decision is immediately entered by the clerk of court in the court docket, and copies are immediately given to the parties. The decision is final and unappealable.

The SCC should substantially declog court dockets and, more important, dispense swifter justice to the poor and powerless.

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