Justice Courts Change Focus
Judge Gerald A. Williams
North Valley Justice of the Peace
The traditional paradigm for judges is that we politely listen to both sides, serve as a referee when necessary, but don’t really attempt to provide much guidance. The goal was to avoid saying anything that could be misinterpreted, even remotely, as helping one side. As a result, we became almost statues and litigants were left wondering what, if anything, they had done wrong.
In Maricopa County, the justice courts have decided to change the focus in civil cases to making sure that decisions are based on the merits of the case, and not because someone who is representing themselves might be unfamiliar with either the law or with procedural rules. This new focus may, depending on the situation, be controversial.
For example, if a judge tells a litigant that they have failed to establish an important element of their case, and then provides an opportunity to fill the gap, the other side could become frustrated or angry. However, under this new approach, it would be appropriate for a judge to ask something about a lack of evidence.
“Sir, the only evidence that you have given about the nature of your injuries is your testimony that when it rains, your knee hurts a little. That is not, by itself, very strong evidence. Do you have any other evidence about your injuries?”
The goal is not to help one side or the other. The goal is for the judge to reach the correct result by applying the law to the facts that were presented. Some may feel that the judge is giving the other side legal advice; but the judge is really just trying to make sure that the judgment will be based on facts, rather than what some might call a technicality.
There have been many efforts to make courts, especially justice courts, more user-friendly over the last few years. These include writing a set of rules for residential eviction actions and rewriting the regular rules of civil procedure into a set used in justice courts. However, these new philosophical changes will present some unique challenges because they require judges to balance competing interests. In fact, many lawyers already think that judges do too much to help people representing themselves.
The Maricopa County Justice Court Best Practices Committee recently encouraged this paradigm shift by adopting a best practice guideline called, “Ensuring Access to Justice for Self-Represented Litigants in Civil Cases.” I have the honor of serving as chairman of that committee and it will be interesting to see how this new approach to judging turns out.
Judge Gerald Williams is the Justice of the Peace for the North Valley Justice Court. His column appears monthly in The Foothills Focus.