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Changes to Low-Level Texas Courts Designed to Make Justice More Accessible to All

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On August 31, 2013, small claims courts in Texas will merge with Justice courts, which are run by Justices of the Peace. Justices of the Peace have overseen the the small claims cases before, and the two dockets will now be merged. Under the merger, and in conjunction with the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure, the Justices of the Peace will get more leeway in running small claims trials.

Cases can be brought in Justice courts for up to $10,000 in damages for civil and personal property claims. Further, lawyers are not required in these courts, and people often compare these courts to the television shows, "The People's Court" and "Judge Judy." There are also new rules for evictions, landlord repair and remedy, and debt claim cases. Ideally, the new merged courts and new rules are to make it simpler and more user friendly for all people - especially non-lawyers. It is hoped that more cases will be heard and decided based on the merits of the case, and not dismissed or bogged down because of technical legal procedures.

Lawyers can still participate in these courts, but now - for the first time - a new rule allows the parties to have non-lawyers speak on their behalf if the judge approves. This will be very helpful for parties who do not have a strong command of the English language. And judges can also question witnesses. Discovery cannot be done unless the judge grants permission, and the rules of evidence are relaxed as well.

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    The Equal Access to Justice Champions Program was started by the Houston Bar Association in 2006, to help ensure placement of Houston Volunteer Lawyers cases with pro bono volunteers. Originally, firms were tiered according to size, and firms within each tier committed to accept a certain number of pro bono cases from HVL each year for five years.

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