Whether the midnight hour or during lunch, Californians feeling wronged can take alleged perpetrators of fraud, breach of contract and unpaid debts to small claims court for $99, plus a $22 court filing fee. All without leaving the house before walking into a courtroom.
In a world where people shop, work and even live online, staff members at LegalZoom.com, a 5-year-old Los Angeles-based online company, will handle all the details, too, of your online lawsuit. Culling the facts from an online questionnaire, 120 employees prepare legal complaints, send them to the right court, even serve defendants with the bad news for an extra $60.
"People get frustrated and ignore even bringing a case because it's too complicated and too time-consuming," said Los Angeles attorney Robert Shapiro, co-founder and chief spokesman of LegalZoom.com. "It causes more exasperation than it's worth."
Shapiro, who a decade ago helped defend football star O.J. Simpson against charges of killing his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ron Goldman, says suing online beats standing in line, learning you're in the wrong court and having your case dismissed because of amateur paperwork.
"The documents are filed in the right place, filed appropriately and the proof of service is filed appropriately," he said.
California small claims courts allow maximum $5,000 judgments against defendants, a total rising to $7,500 in 2006. Both parties personally argue their cases before a judge who renders a decision. Yet almost 40 percent of the nearly
300,000 small claims cases filed statewide yearly never get to the courtroom, state records show, often because they're improperly handled.
Ironically, LegalZoom's newest venture into online legal services copies Internet ventures already in place in Sacramento, San Joaquin, San Mateo, Ventura and Los Angeles county courts.
At least 40 percent of the 9,400 small claims cases in Sacramento County courts during the fiscal year that ended June 30 were filed online, said superior courts spokeswoman Pam Reynolds.
So-called "self litigants" also do paperwork online for family law, domestic violence and guardianship forms. Statewide, the California Judicial Council, the administrative arm of California's state court system, provides online forms as part of a self-help Web site, but does not file them in court, says council spokeswoman Lynn Holton.
Shapiro said LegalZoom offers "demand letters written in language probably better than you would be able to do yourself," provides subpoena forms for witnesses and detailed information on how to collect judgments. The company will also find the right defendant to serve if a claim is against a giant telephone phone or credit card corporation, he said.
"To find the person who you can serve can be a nightmare for most people," said Shapiro, an early investor in the online Los Angeles venture launched by a pair of law school graduates.
LegalZoom, which claims 250,000 customers in its first five years, specializes in legal paperwork for company incorporations, name changes, prenuptial agreements, uncontested divorces, wills and living wills. The online venture, which insists it is not a law firm and does not provide legal advice, plans soon to take its California small claims venture national, Shapiro said.