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The country's small claims courts, designed for the use of the average citizen, have become collection agencies for businesses and landlords according to a Ralph Nader-sponsored study at Harvard.
The Small Claims Study Group recently released a 765-page, two volume report detailing the findings of a year-long investigation, and presenting recommendations for action at the federal, state and local levels.
Ralph Nader called the report "a rebuke to the legal profession, which has failed in its educational and public service functions." Early this summer Nader awarded the Study Group a $9500 grant from his Public Service Fund to continue its efforts.
"The small claims courts are either unavailable, unusual, or invisible as far as the individual is concerned." John Weiss, teaching fellow in Social Studies and head of the group, said yesterday.
"It's like entering a library and finding that all the books are in Braille," Weiss said. "The average citizen simply cannot take advantage of what is there. Small claims courts represent the greatest instance of frustrated potential in the consumer field," he said.
Research for the report was begun last summer by a dozen Summer School students working under Weiss. Over 3000 case records were examined, and hundreds of litigants and court officials interviewed.
Work is continuing this summer, with special emphasis on the courts in Roxbury. In addition, Weiss said, he is seeking volunteers to edit a "consumer survival guide," to write a newsletter about the courts, and to begin research for model Federal legislation on small claims courts.
The Study Group report suggests that lawyers be restricted or barred from small claims courts since their presence often intimidates indigent litigants. Lawyers could be replaced by para-legal "small claims advisors," local residents who have completed a training program in rudimentary principles of law and consumer action, according to the report.
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