There are a wide variety of ways for attorneys to perform pro bono services: family court, juvenile proceedings, guardianships, guardian ad litem services, representation in criminal matters. The need for such services is great. One area that is generally not on everyone’s list but where there is a substantial need is in the court system itself. With caseloads growing while judicial budgets are being squeezed along with every other government service, the courts are being asked to do more with less. To help keep the system moving, the small claims courts in Vermont have reached out to local attorneys to serve as acting judges. This is a great opportunity for interesting and manageable pro bono work.
When I started my practice many years ago, I was a true general practitioner, so I appeared in the various courts regularly. I have more of an office practice now, but it is still nice to be involved occasionally with trial matters and the court. It is an interesting experience for a lawyer to move into the judge’s role, to make the rulings on evidence, and try to keep the parties on track. It is nice to have charge of the courtroom, but it also gives you an appreciation for the sometimes difficult decisions a judge has to make and the best way to announce those decisions.
Small claims hearings in Vermont are generally pro se matters, although an attorney might appear in some cases. It is supposed to be a streamlined, less formal procedure to get matters heard and decided. As such, there is no discovery, no motion practice, just a complaint and answer (and these get wide latitude on matters of sufficiency). It is up to the judge to let both sides tell their stories while at the same time keeping the matter on track and eliciting what seems to be the pertinent information to make a decision. As acting judge, you can guide the testimony and evidentiary offerings and ask whatever questions you feel are important. You also interact directly with the litigants, asking questions, explaining rulings, dealing with evidentiary issues, and making and explaining decisions. It is sometimes challenging to explain to people why you are ruling against them—that the ruling is not a reflection on their credibility or them as a person.
Small claims matters may be small monetarily, but they are of great importance to the parties. And often they present interesting fact patterns and questions of law. Along with the routine landlord-tenant and collection matters, I’ve heard claims of veterinary malpractice, improper septic installation, lead paint abatement issues, defective tractor repair, and many, many more. Some cases do require legal research and take time to consider and craft a decision, but most are decided from the bench.
The fact that most small claims matters can be decided from the bench or by taking just a brief amount of time to consider the evidence and the issues presented is one of the great advantages to this kind of pro bono service: The time commitment is manageable—often just the time spent hearing cases. Generally, I spend only a half day whenever I volunteer. If I have to research and draft findings, it might add an hour. Contrast that with taking a contested divorce case, which can get out of control and demand increasing amounts of time on a schedule you have little control over.
The Vermont Court Administrator’s Office pays its acting judges, but the compensation is only $75 per day, and it must be for a full day. For a practicing attorney (the small claims court requires attorneys be admitted for five years before being appointed as acting judge), giving a whole day for a $75 payment hardly makes sense. But most court clerks are happy to schedule an acting judge for a half day, pro bono. Our local small claims clerk has a list of volunteer judges to whom she’ll send an e-mail almost every month listing the available days she has for the upcoming month. Several attorneys taking a half day a month can help move the caseload along. In fact, as I write this, the latest e-mail from the local small claims clerk indicates that she is current on evidentiary hearings, although still behind on credit card collection matters and post-judgment matters.
I find being an acting judge for a morning every month or two to be relatively painless and often enjoyable. I can easily plan it into my practice schedule. It is nice to get back to the courthouse occasionally to see the staff, to get a different legal experience, and to help out.