Texas Justice of the Peace Courts: Practice Tips Vol. 1
Practice tips for Texas Justice of the Peace Courts - small claims court - JP Court
Texas Justice of the Peace Courts aren't just for lawyers, but...Lately I have been asked to address landlord-tenant disputes in and around Harris and Fort Bend Counties. In this realm I became more familiar with Texas Justice of the Peace courts, also known as "JP Courts" or "small claims courts" that handle, among other issues, claims under $10,000 including attorneys' fees, and all eviction (detainer) proceedings. I am genuinely surprised at how user-friendly these courts are and the great extent to which they have streamlined to enable laypersons (nonlawyers) to represent themselves.
Despite the relative user friendliness of the JP Courts, some folks simply don't have the time or attention span to learn and sort through the processes. Beyond that, by having a lawyer perform the services a participant can be more assured important nuances are not overlooked. After all, filling out my own personal taxes might be learnable and well within my capacity, but I prefer to pay a third-party to do it for the thoroughness, time save, and virtual guarantee of accuracy.
Here's a few macro points that might help lawyers and nonlawyers alike navigate the JP Court process and evictions in particular. I invite anyone with additional valuable insight to comment below.
JP Courts give free forms and advice.Several JP courts provide template complaint forms, response forms, and other documents to use for filing, defending, and presenting cases, including evictions.
*Harris County: http://www.jp.hctx.net/forms/
*Fort Bend County: http://www.fortbendcountytx.gov/index.aspx?page=1286
*Dallas County: https://www.dallascounty.org/government/jpcourts/4-2/civil.php
The forms are virtually interchangeable between precincts, counties and courts, with slight modifications. Harris County JP Court 1-2, for example, even provides landlords a literal script on what to say to the judge during an eviction hearing (this script could likely be used in any county). An added bonus: I found most court staffers seemed helpful when asked to clarify processes and procedures.
JP Court formalities are vastly different than county/district/federal/appellate courts.Of course the formal dress code and respect for the bench applies in small claims courts, but many of the legal formalities of litigating in county, district, federal, and/or appellate courts don't apply. Perhaps most importantly, in JP Court the Texas Rules of Evidence and Texas Rules of Civil Procedure don't generally apply (you can request to have specific rules apply as required for fairness). You can't even do discovery without court permission. During a JP Court trial, all competing parties get a chance to share their side of the story in a relatively informal narrative format, including witnesses and evidence; the judge asks questions at his/her discretion, and then typically issues a decision right then.
Attorneys' fees not recoverable?Even when the contract permits recovery of attorneys' fees, the JP Court (indeed many other courts) may substitute its own discretion. In one of our eviction cases we had over $2,000 in attorneys' fees caused by an unusually obstinate tenant, but the judge awarded only $1,000, with no explanation. I can only assume that since JP Court claims are "small claims" under $10,000 (many of them far less), the judges vigilantly scrutinize whether legal bills rival the amount of the underlying claim. Perhaps this makes sense with debt or contract claims, but for evictions, where $500,000+ properties are being wasted by tenants, aggressive use of eviction attorneys is appropriate, even if the outstanding rent balance is well under $10,000. The takeaway is be judicious with attorneys' fees in JP Courts, and be prepared to justify, as needed, why attorneys' fees may seem disproportionate to the value of the underlying claim.
In sum...Any nonlawyer can represent themselves in Texas JP Courts if they have the time and the will. For those without the time or will, an attorney should be consulted.