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Don’t sweat the small stuff – lessons from European courts

Georgia Harley's picture


Last year, we posted a blog – Resolving Minor Disputes Matters Big Time for the Poor – which highlighted how courts can fast-track minor disputes to deliver faster, cheaper and more appropriate justice and how – for the poor and for micro and small businesses – this may be their only path to justice. 

Increasingly, citizens and businesses demand fast-tracking services for small cases and, according to Doing Business data, 138 economies have a small claims procedure of some kind. So courts across the world are eager to learn how to roll out such reforms – either to introduce a fast track procedure or to improve on an existing one.

In response to such demands, our team has examined the practice in the 28 European Union (EU) member states, nearly all of whom have fast-tracking services. The report, entitled Fast-Tracking the Resolution of Minor Disputes: Experience from EU Member States, finds that while the procedure may differ from country to country, there are some salient general features that reformers can look to. For example:
  • Court fees are usually lower – this is an important step in making the procedure affordable for the poor and small-and micro enterprises. The average court fee in the EU for a claim of less than €2,000 is €94 EUR (or 5% of the value of the claim);
  • This is mainly about monetary disputes – some other types of disputes, such as family disputes, may be exempted. The threshold for what constitutes a ‘small’ claim varies significantly across the different jurisdictions, from €600 in Germany and Croatia, to €25,000 in the Netherlands;
  • Procedures are simpler – to speed things up, court are allowed to deviate from the strict rules of procedure. For example, parties may not have to attend the proceedings at all. The hearings may be conducted entirely in writing. Ordinary rules for evidence may be set aside, as well as the rules for how to present the judgment. 
  • Lawyers stay away – the procedure is so simple and the cases usually turn on basic facts, so lawyers aren’t generally needed, which also keeps costs down. Legal aid and recovery of costs from the losing party are normally not available. Instead of being helped by a lawyer, the judge may take on a more active role and instruct the parties about their rights and obligations.
  • Deadlines are short – the process may be additionally sped-up through the introduction of shorter mandatory deadlines. In several countries, appeals are limited and can only be made in points of law (i.e. if serious procedural mistakes have been made). More and more countries are also introducing electronic services, although there is still a lot of work to be done in this area. For now, the most commonly available e-service is submitting the claim online. Some countries are considering introducing a small claims procedure that is conducted entirely online. 
So why don’t we see and hear more about this? 

Interestingly, the biggest obstacle to citizens using the fast-track procedure seems to be that they are not aware of its existence. According to a survey of EU countries, 75% of respondents were not aware of the existence of a small claims procedure in their country. 

The report will be of interest to countries looking to introduce a small claims procedure or improve its design. Getting your fast-track procedure right will help free up court resources, reduce backlogs, and ensures access to justice for ordinary citizens and micro-and small businesses. 

Countries would do well to consider how they can fast-track the small stuff in their home context.

This report is available in SerbianBulgarianRomanianCroatian, Macedonian, and Albanian.
 

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