Small claims court is meant to be an informal, inexpensive and expeditious way of resolving disputes. And even though you have the right to appeal a small claims decision if you are sued and lose, the appeal does not include the right to a jury trial, according to a decision this summer by the California Supreme Court.
The plaintiff in a small claims suit, the person who files the action, does not have a right to appeal. But the defendant, the person who is sued, does have the right to appeal to the Superior Court, for what is known as a trial de novo. That means that the new judge will hear the entire case on its own merits again, not simply decide whether the small claims judge made a mistake of law. But, the Supreme Court says, you can’t have a jury hear the appeal, except in eviction cases in which such appeals are specifically provided for by state law.
In the Supreme Court case of Crouchman vs. Superior Court, which did not involve an eviction, the court decided that a jury trial on appeal would be inconsistent with the informal procedures established by the Legislature and, in addition, was not required by the state Constitution.
There are no attorneys, no pleadings and no legal rules of evidence in small claims court, the court noted; decisions are “often based on the application of common sense, and the spirit of compromise and conciliation attends the proceedings.” This informal and simplified process would be lost if juries got involved, the court implied.
The court also concluded that the California Constitution did not require a jury trial, even though it provides that “trial by jury is an inviolate right and shall be secured to all.” The constitutional right to a jury trial is the right as it existed in 1850 when the Constitution was first adopted, Chief Justice Malcolm Lucas said in his opinion. And his historical analysis revealed that “jury-less” small claims tribunals for disputes involving small monetary amounts were well established in both England and the 13 Colonies, long before our state Constitution came into being, and back to at least the 15th Century.
However, he noted that the court’s decision on whether a jury is constitutionally required in a small claims appeal could change if the small claims limit, currently $1,500, was increased by the Legislature to “a level which could no longer be considered a very small monetary amount.” (He didn’t say what that amount might be.)
Not to be confused by all this legal mumbo jumbo, just don’t forget that when you’re sued in small claims court, you’ll have two chances to win in front of a judge, and, unless you’re being evicted, not any chance to be heard by a jury.
Klein cannot answer mail personally but will respond in this column to questions of general interest about the law. Do not telephone. Write to Jeffrey S. Klein, Legal View, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.