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Article by Mohan Babu


‘Small-claims’ legal system in the US

Small-claims courts in the US are designed to solve cases instantly, to avoid protracted legal battles, writes Mohan Babu

In an earlier column, I talked about the basics of legal system in the US, how an understanding of the fundamentals of law can help guide our lives in a foreign country. Recently, I had an opportunity to test- the maximum extent to which a (lay) person can use the legal system without hiring expensive attorneys.

My wife and I had planned a vacation to India during Jan/Feb, 2001. Since I was unable to take more than four weeks off from work, I suggested that she leave a month earlier. Due to our conflicting schedules, we decided to book our tickets separately. I booked my ticket directly with the airline, after which we contacted a travel agent in Chicago. He agreed to book my wife's return travel corresponding to mine, so that both of us could travel back together. I have travelled on different airlines on the trans-Atlantic route a number of times and know most of the ‘tricks’ employed by travel agents, and thought I had a good deal on her ticket. At the time of booking the ticket, I didn’t realise that I had bargained for anything more than just a flight ticket.

A few days before our departure from India, I tried to reconfirm our tickets, as is the norm. On contacting the airline, we were told that my ticket was OK. However, we were told that my wife's ticket could not be reconfirmed due to an incorrect ticketing done by the agent. Since we had to leave for the US and were unable to contact the travel agent, we approached another travel agent in India, who issued both of us, new one-way tickets.

Upon coming back to the US, I made repeated attempts to contact the travel agent, expecting them to explain their side of the story. As in a case of grossly negligent customer service, they refused to return my calls or my mails. I pride myself on being a savvy consumer and realised that we were wronged. I had suffered a loss and was unwilling to let the matter rest.

I then tried to contact the airline directly. They responded by saying that on investigating the matter, they found it to be a ‘booking class’ violation on the part of the travel agent. They also added they were not responsible for the travel agent’s actions and asked me to pursue it with the agent. On further inquiry, I was told that prices of international air tickets vary widely, and a ‘booking class violation’ occurs when travel agents cut corners by booking passengers on categories of tickets they are not authorised to book. These cases slip through the cracks when the flights are not fully booked. Sometimes out of sheer goodwill, airline-ticketing agents allow passengers to travel, even when they realise that there is a booking class violation. However, in most cases when the flight is fully booked, the ticketing agents scrutinise each ticket vigilantly and weed out tickets that have been incorrectly booked. Unfortunately for us, the flight from India was overbooked and the airline was not able to accommodate us. Most passengers trust the professionals - travel agents - to book their ticket correctly and are blissfully unaware of the nuances of booking international tickets.

A few months after returning back to the US, I started researching the ticketing process and started understanding the intricacies involved. I also became aware of the fact that the travel agency’s refusal to get in touch with me meant that they were guilty and were stonewalling, hoping that I would just let the matter rest. By this time, I also started reading up the various facets of consumer protection available to individuals. I realised that

the first semi-legal body authorised to mediate on my behalf was the state’s BBB (Better Business Bureau). Even after repeated correspondence with the BBB of Chicago when I failed to get a response from the travel agent, I decided to take ‘legal action’. I discovered that the small claims court system was designed for people just like me.

During my initial analysis process, one of the first things I realised was that the legal system at a grass-root level varied from state-to-state. I also discovered that the constitutions of the United States, not only guarantee the right to be represented by a legal counsel, but also offer permission to each and every citizen the right of self-representation. Because of the nature of small claim cases, many litigants choose to represent themselves. I went to the local library and got a few books on the small-claims court system. I also downloaded detailed instructions from the state government’s website and started reading up on the process.

The small-claims court system is meant for people with small claims against merchants, businesses and service providers. In most states in the US, the claims have to be for an amount less than $5,000 in order for the case to be accepted by the small claims court, also known as a pro se court. Most pro se courts prefer a semi-formal arbitration, and do not encourage or discourage people from hiring attorneys. I am no lawyer myself, but having the basics of business law during my masters, I knew that ours was a simple case of “breach of contract”; we expected the travel agent to make-good the loss incurred due to their negligence. In the back of my mind I knew that in a litigious nation, I could hire a good attorney and go after them (the agent) for incidental losses, including “mental agony” suffered by us. But, that was not our intent. We just wanted to recoup our losses.

If reading this far reminded you of the old “panchayat” system, still prevalent in small villages in India and south east Asia, you are right on mark. Small claims courts are designed to be exactly like panchayats, albeit staffed by professional judges and court staff. Like panchayats, they can enforce the law in a semi-formal just manner, instantly, without the need for a protracted legal battle.




About the Author

  • A Bio and profile of the author, Mohan Babu, can be found at his homepage
  • Mohan has authored a book on Offshoring and Outsourcing (Publisher McGraw Hill, India), a link to which can be found here
  • Mohan has also authored an Online book on "Life in the US," available for free download.
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    For FAQ, Trivia and Information on Life in America, visit the Ask-A-Desi section

    ©Mohan Babu: All Rights Reserved 2005

    Mohan Babu is an international consultant trying to find the ‘sweet spot’ where IT meets business. E-mail: mohan He is also the author of a recent book on "Offshoring IT Services"

    All rights are reserved. Mohan Babu ("Author") hereby grants permission to use, copy and distribute this document for any NON-PROFIT purpose, provided that the article is used in its complete, UNMODIFIED form including both the above Copyright notice and this permission notice. Reproducing this article by any means, including (but not limited to) printing, copying existing prints, or publishing by electronic or other means, implies full agreement to the above non-profit-use clause. Exceptions to the above, such as including the article in a compendium to be sold for profit, are permitted only by EXPLICIT PRIOR WRITTEN CONSENT of Mohan Babu. 

    Disclaimer: This document represents the personal opinions of the Author, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of the Author's employer, nor anyone other than the Author. This Article was originally published in Express Computers


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