Ensuring Texans Have Access to Courts
We speak often about the mushrooming cost of litigation, both in terms of time and money. The fact is that for many Texans, hiring a lawyer is expensive, and quite often, cases are too risky or too time consuming for the average person to pursue.
This has effectively shut a large swath of Texans out of the court system. It’s also the reason why we’ve seen a rise in alternative dispute resolution mechanisms like mediation and arbitration. They’ve become a necessity for those who simply cannot afford to pursue litigation through the traditional court system.
We at TLR think there is a better way. And this session, the Legislature is poised to improve access to the courts for every Texan through two pieces of legislation, Senate Bill 2342 and House Bill 3336.
These bills expand on successful procedures that Texas has already implemented to expedite civil lawsuits. That means more lawsuits can be resolved quicker and at less expense.
For example, justice of the peace courts handle civil cases with less than $10,000 in controversy. These courts handle caseloads quickly, use informal procedures and don’t require a lawyer, making them easily accessed by Texans. SB 2342 and HB 3336 expand their maximum jurisdiction to $20,000, allowing more Texans to take advantage of justice of the peace courts to get a quick resolution of a relatively small dispute.
Many of Texas’ larger counties have courts called county courts at law. They were designed to be a step between JP courts, which handle small civil cases, and district courts, which handle large civil cases. The maximum civil jurisdiction for most county courts at law is $200,000. These bills raise the standard maximum jurisdictional limit to $250,000, again expanding the pool of cases that can be heard in these courts.
Following the 2011 legislative session, the Texas Supreme Court set rules for expedited proceedings in civil cases with less than $100,000 in controversy, including attorney’s fees. Because attorney’s fees are included and often exceed the amount of damages in a small civil case, the $100,000 limitation is often too restrictive. SB 2342 and HB 3336 raise the limit to $250,000—excluding attorney’s fees—to make expedited case procedure available in more lawsuits.
While most county courts at law can only hear cases with up to $200,000 in controversy, a few counties in Texas have county courts at law with unlimited civil jurisdiction. They can hear the same civil cases as the district courts in those counties. The difference is that the parties are entitled to a 12-person jury in district court, but only a six-person jury in a county court at law. Smaller juries tend to hand down more inconsistent and aberrational decisions, both high and low. These bills allow any party to a case with more than $250,000 in controversy to demand that the case be presented to 12 jurors rather than six.
We believe these bills make good and important changes to the legal system that will help ensure Texans of all backgrounds can access the courts.