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Tulane Law Students Arbitrate Small Claims Cases

March 18, 2005

In an effort to grow the perspective and professional experience of its pupils, the Tulane Law School has entered a joint venture with Orleans Parish Civil District Court to allow third-year law students to arbitrate small claims cases.

The new one-of-a-kind program allows New Orleans residents who have a small claims disagreement to plead their case before a panel of Tulane third-year law students. At the end of the hearing students make a final, binding decision and write an opinion on the case. Paul Barron, professor of law, formulated the idea for the program during a conversation with First City Court Judge Charles Imbornone last summer. “I was talking to the judge about an opportunity for students to be mediators [persons who help negotiate civil cases but do not make final decisions] in First and Second City Court,” Barron said. “The judge said what they really needed were arbitrators for small claims court. When he said that it struck me that it might be something very interesting for third-year law students to do.”
Though intrigued with the idea, Barron and Imbornone sought the opinion of the Louisiana Supreme Court on the legalities of third-year law students working as arbitrators. The court returned an opinion approving the move as long as the parties understand the arbitrators are law students. With the Supreme Court’s blessing, Barron and more than 60 students participated in an all-day training session last October to learn court rules and procedures. By January, students began hearing cases.

In Orleans Parish Civil District Court, claims of $3,000 or below are heard as small claims cases. Unlike cases above the $3,000 limit, small claims cases cannot be appealed. The new program appeals to both students and residents, Barron said. With the current court backlog, it might take six months before a case can go before a judge. Parties opting for arbitration before a student panel will have to wait six weeks or less. Meanwhile, students fulfill their 20-hour pro bono service requirement while learning practical law skills from a different viewpoint.

“What’s unique about this program is that students are deciders instead of representatives,” said Barron. “It gives them a different perspective to be better advocates on the part of their clients. It gives them a different view of law.”  Cases are arbitrated by a panel of three students. One panel member is designated as panel chair, allowing him or her to make a final decision and write a brief opinion. The other panel members help deliberate and guide the decision process.

Barron and Julie Jackson, assistant dean and community service coordinator, review the opinions and a city court judge signs the final decision. “Students have absolutely loved working the cases,” Jackson said. “I’ve heard them say it was the best experience they’ve had in law school. They really understood how it was to decide a case.”
Since January, student panels have ruled on 15 cases ranging from home owner/contractor disputes, lease disagreements, public and private housing settlements and employee wage discrepancies.

“Even in small claims courts, I think students have discovered that each case is still amazingly complex,” Barron said. “They have to determine what’s credible and what’s not. It’s a very challenging and interesting decision-making process.” The response from New Or-leans residents who have pleaded their cases before the panel also has been positive.

“One of the things that I was concerned about was how plaintiffs and defendants, most of whom are older than the students, would react if they came to the hearing and saw three younger people acting as the panel,” Barron said. “But they have treated them just like they would treat a judge.”
The program is on track through this year into 2006, Barron said, and plans are to continue it as long as resources allow. In the future, Barron hopes to use the program to attract potential students to Tulane.

The article above appeared in Tulane University's "Inside Tulane" and was written by Geoffrey Shannon.


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