The Small Claims Advisory Service (SCAS) is an undergraduate public service organization at Harvard University affiliated with the Phillips Brooks House Association (PHBA). Its primary focus is to help clients navigate the confusing world of small claims court law through its telephone service, in-person assistance, and instructional manuals. SCAS is exclusively dedicated to assist with small claims court problems and this makes it the only organization of its kind in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
The Early Years
The history of SCAS is a short but interesting one. It was founded as the Roxbury Small Claims Advisory Project (SCAP for short) in October of 1974 by a group of six dedicated students and was little more than an offshoot of PBHA's Legal Committee. The impetus for the project was a request by Judge John Cratsley of the Roxbury Municipal Court for an advisory service similar to the one existing previously in the Dorchester and Roxbury courts. The earlier project had been funded by a group affiliated with the consumer crusader Ralph Nader, and consisted fo two full-time small claims specialists who gave free advice on organizing and presenting small claims cases. In addition, they acted as third party mediators and observers at the behest of the court, and, in certain situations, as advocates. It was this type of organization that SCAP sought to create.
In order to train themselves in small claims court procedure, the volunteers read and studied Sue the Bastards, a popular manual for small claims litigants. In addition, they read a booklet on how to sue by Mass PIRG, various other miscellaneous information on the court, and of course, the rules of small claims procedure. The volunteers also attended two specialized training sessions, one with Alan Dietch, the former adviser of the Nader project, and the other with judge Cratsley, who instructed the volunteers on the nature of an effective small claims case from a judge's perspective.
Judge Cratsley generously provided the fledgling project with a rent-free office in the Roxbury Municipal Court. The office was open Monday and Wednesday mornings and Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. Soon after opening, two more volunteers were added to help alleviate the swiftly rising workload. In addition to the new volunteers, a night-line was established through a phone at the Phillips Brooks House, and was attended Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday nights from 7-9 PM.
Complete success eluded the project, however. SCAP's proposal to set up operations at the Cambridge court was turned down by Chief Justice Lawrence Feloney, who cited SCAP's possible unauthorized practice of law as his main reason for refusal. Also, SCAP's attempts to be included as a full committee within the greater Phillips Brooks House Association met with repeated failure - PBH officials remained unconvinced about the focus of SCAP. As a result, the program remained a subordinate group within the larger Legal Committee. Perhaps the biggest problem with SCAP, however, was the lack of focus. As David Bixby, one of the original volunteers explained in a 1975 grant proposal, "The group neglected to develop clearly-defined ideas on the precise nature of what they were doing, why they were doing it, and what they ultimately hoped to accomplish. The group recognized this problem somewhat, yet decided to leave the resolution of these issues, particularly the last two, to time and experience."
In 1976, only a few years after the project was founded, the Boston Globe took notice of the impact the project - now known as the Small Claims Advisory Service - was having in the Roxbury area. Citing it for its success in "easing the way into small claims court," the newspaper interviewed both Judge Crastley and student volunteers like then chairperson Tony Gentry. The Globe was full of nothing but praise:
"[The Small Claims Advisory Service] is the only on of its kind in the state....When citizens call the Small Claims Advisory Service at 427-8782, they are invited to visit the office and are assisted in either filing a claim or defending against a suit. The student volunteer will explain how to father resources like documents, letters, bills, and witnesses, and explain how the court hearing will work. Sometimes nervous citizens are brought into the small claims session to see it in action and reduce their anxiety."
The Globe article succeeded in attracting more attention to SCAS, and thanks in part to the favorable publicity, interest in legal advocacy surged and the number of volunteers increased twofold. As one of the larger programs within PBHA, SCAS was subsequently granted independent committee status and separated from its parent, The Legal Committee. This move affirmed SCAS's importance as a separate organization and highlighted the impact of legal advocacy within the larger conglomerate of service programs.
The Search for a Home
The late 1970s and the early 1980s were difficult years for SCAS, as the initial excitement and newness of legal advocacy and small claims wore off. In an extreme low point in 1981, two volunteers were mugged on their way to the Roxbury courthouse. This situation, combined with the threat of future security problems, forced SCAS to close their Roxbury office and withdraw from the area altogether. While the move was intended to preserve volunteer safety, however, closing the Roxbury office seriously hampered SCAS in its attempts to help small claims litigants. Since it was essentially left without office space, SCAS could no longer function properly. In frustration, SCAS officials quickly began searching for office space elsewhere. During the spring of 1982, officers contacted 114 courthouses, community service organizations, and Harvard alumnae in an effort to locate another rent-free office space. Finally, after much deliberation with PBHA executive board members, SCAS found a permanent home in a 2nd story communal office in the Philips Brooks House in Harvard Yard.
But while this original PBH office provided much needed office space for the group, it left much to be desired. Occupying a desk in a lager communal office, SCAS volunteers had to deal with the background of volunteers of other programs. The office lacked the privacy SCAS needed to conduct its business. Perhaps most importantly, the communal nature of the office prevented clients and volunteers from meeting face-to-face. "Our present location on campus at Philips Brooks House prohibits us from providing 'walk-in' service to our callers. We are anxious to move back into the community," grumbled a 1982 grant application.
The closing of the Roxbury office in the early 1980s signaled SCAS's withdrawal from the community. For twelve years, SCAS remained cloistered in Harvard Yard and community contact was minimal. In July 1994, however, the efforts of Executive Director Frank Pasquale '96 paid off with the opening of an office at the Cambridge and Somerville Legal Services (CASLS). Located in Inman Square at the office of the Cambridge and Somerville Legal Services, the CASLS office, unlike the one at PBH, invited clients to come in with their problems for a one-on-one help session. Volunteers could then assist the clients with writing demand letters, filing out forms, or listening to arguments. One volunteer explained the daily operations at the CASLS office:
"After meeting with a client to discuss a case, we often make phone calls and write letters on their behalf. Since we are working in a law office, we can also ask any of the then on-site lawyers particularly complex questions and can use their law library to research legal issues. Whenever possible, volunteers even accompany clients to court...SCAS volunteers at [CASLS] play an active role in helping disadvantaged individuals assert their rights."
Not only did the CASLS office facilitate client contact, but it also fostered a healthy relationship between SCAS and the Cambridge and Somerville Legal Services. Patrick Arnerson, Director of CASLS, pointed out, "CASLS have provided SCAS volunteers with free office space and telephone privileges, while SCAS personnel have created a handy in-house referral option for overworked attorneys and paralegals."
Sadly, budget cuts at the Cambridge and Somerville Legal Services forced the closing of SCAS's CASLS office in 1997. Alarmed at the thought of losing valuable community contact, SCAS officers immediately began looking for alternate office space. Thanks to some lucky networking by Executive Director John Orsini '98, SCAS officers were able to get in touch with the Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS), the federal legal aid program serving the Boston area. GBLS was able to provide SCAS with a small interview room on the second floor and allow SCAS to use office supplies as well as a state-of the-art computer. SCAS's GBLS office opened in the winter of 1998 and currently serves as SCAS's base of community operations. SCAS's two main offices - the GBLS office and the Harvard office in the Phillips Brooks House basement - make up the bedrock of SCAS's client contact.
The Spirit of Reform
But SCAS was also devoting its resources to tasks other than contacting clients. Starting in the early 1980s, for example, SCAS began exploring ways to make the small claims system better through legal reform. One frustration that had been plaguing litigants was the low $750 limit on small claims cases. This limit meant that many cases could not be heard in small claims court simply because the amount of money involved exceeded the limit. As a result, SCAS began working on changing the system itself. In the spring of 1981, a SCAS chair testified before the state legislature on behalf of a small claims reform bill. In 1982, that bill became law, and the ceiling of small claims court was raised from $750 to $1,250. This simple measure was to be the first involvement by SCAS in the legislative arena.
SCAS's involvement in legislative reform continued to grow in the late 1980s and early 1990s. At this point, the problem SCAS addressed was no longer the limit on small claims cases. The system worked smoothly, except when it came time for clients to collect. Indeed, the small claims system was unable to ensure that winning parties would be able to collect their rightful dues, and many judgment debtors were able to get off the hook. "Throughout Massachusetts there are thousands of people each year who go to small claims court, follow the correct procedures, win their cases, and are still never able to collect what they are owed," wrote Elizabeth Pope '98, a SCAS volunteer. This one weakness was causing the small claims system to lose much of its prestige and respect. SCAS was one of the first organizations to stand up and take notice.
It was out of the frustration over collection problems that the Law Reform committee was created in January of 1998. Law Reform had existed previously as a joint committee with Legal Research. The split was made under the advisement of Carlton Larson '97, Legal Research Director. As soon as it was created, the committee, under the leadership of newly appointed director Micah Myers '00, immediately began researching and scrutinizing bills pending in the Massachusetts legislature. After analyzing the various problems that successful plaintiffs in small claims court had in trying to collect their settlements, the Law Reform committee drafted its own bill to toughen collections procedures. HB1344 proposed reforms that would have made it easier for individual plaintiffs to collect the judgments they had won in small claims court and found a sponsor in State Representative Paul Demakis '75, JD '78. The bill had five provisions:
- Payment hearings were to be automatically scheduled once a judgment was awarded.
- Easier wage assignments
- Escalating fees for non-payers
- Non-renewal of driver's licenses for those with outstanding judgments
- Clear information on this process must be provided to all parties.
HB1344 was ultimately combined with a Senate bill on the same topic sponsored by State Senator Cheryl A. Jacques.
Structure and Organization
In addition to its attempts to reform the legal system, SCAS has had a long history of restructure and reorganization. Originally starting out with six students in 1974, the number of SCAS volunteers has risen steadily. Indeed, soon after SCAS won United Way approval in 1986 (five years before the Phillips Brooks House was awarded this honor), SCAS membership was close to one hundred members.
The growth was not consistent, however. In the fall of 1994, for example, SCAS was able to enlist only four new volunteers into its training schedule. It became apparent to 1995 Executive Director Frank Pasquale '96 and 1996 Executive Director Christian Chu '97 that restructure and reorganization were needed in order to attract more volunteers and to better train them in small claims court procedure.
Under the leadership of Pasquale and Chu, the entire system of training was revamped so that new volunteers ("compers") learned the ropes of small claims court procedure in small groups led by an experienced volunteer ("workgroup leader"). Additionally, the teaching curriculum was updated to create more comprehensive and interactive weekly lessons for the group setting and began to encompass ample case studies and other exercises for compers to learn the law.
The need for more interactive training procedures also led to the creation of SCAS's very own website, designed by Sharon Yang '98, former Director of Communications. The website features an online training manual, brochures, and other contact information, both for new volunteers and interested members of the public. Perhaps the most interesting feature of the SCAS website is the on-line Legal Research question book, an addition made by 1998 Legal Research Director Steve Won. Here, volunteers can enter their questions and expect a speedy email reply from one of the members of the Legal Research Committee.
Perhaps the most radical and recent upheaval at SCAS was the shift from the ubiquitous "blue cards" to a computerized database in the summer of 1999. Previously, volunteers would have to write information out by hand on blue cards, which would then be sorted in different boxes according to case status. This system was cheap, but cumbersome. Cards were easily lost, misplaced or rendered indecipherable by a volunteer's poor handwriting. The computer database, designed specifically for the needs of SCAS by Aaron Brofman '02, truly brought SCAS into the computer age. The subsequent i3 system, designed and put into place by David Monteiro '04, made the database more user-friendly, and also made it accessible via the internet to all users. Volunteers can now access and edit information and call up cases on the basis of certain characteristics. Perhaps most importantly, the use of the computer database has increased SCAS's efficiency and has made locating client information all that much easier.
In the early 2000s, SCAS aggressively sought more and more grant funding through various means. SCAS is currently working on the Small Claims Research and Education Project (SCREP), a Massbar funded project whose components include an information video for clients on English language brochures. SCAS was also the recipient of the HULA grant, another Massbar project that funded the formation of foreign language office hours at SCAS's community office, a Spanish-language instructional video, and various Spanish brochures.
In recent years, SCAS has been trying to export its model to other states in the country. SCAS volunteers have now completed an instructional manual for California and New York. The host colleges have not yet been determined. In addition, SCAS has started doing more direct community work. In 2004, under the leadership of Henry Mak '06 and Jasmine Zhang '06, SCAS opened a satellite office in the Boston Chinatown, at the Chinese Progressive Association (CPA). SCAS gets Cantonese and Mandarin-speaking referrals from GBLS, and from other sources, and schedules appointments with them. In the fall of 2006, under the leadership of Marco Basile '08, SCAS will be opening an office to service the Spanish-speaking community in the greater Boston area. Hai Pham '09 is working with VietAid to open another satellite SCAS office in Dorchester, serving the Vietnamese-speaking population.