Delivering justice

case study of a small claims court metadiscourse


  • Karen Tracy University of Colorado



metadiscourse, small claims court, website, judge discourse, grounded practical theory, legal–lay communication


This study analyses an important but unstudied site of legal–lay communication: the website discourse of a small claims court. I describe six interactional problems that litigants in small claims court face that the official court metadiscourse, i.e., the court website, does not ably prepare participants for. Problems include: 1) addressees vary enormously in assumed education levels, 2) facework challenges misidentify focal parties, 3) the speech genre is more Q and A than a presentation, 4) limited attention is given to distinguishing fairness from legality, 5) the downside of extensive metadiscourse is not recognised and 6) the variety among judges is given little attention. These problems, I show, are shaped by the existence of two partly contradictory ideals embedded in the practice of small claims interaction, as well as the metadiscourse regarding what counts as good communication. One ideal of small claims court is to see it as a place where disputes can be addressed fairly by an impartial arbitrator. The other ideal is to see small claims as a place where legal rules are applied to disputes to yield a legal solution. The article concludes with suggestions about how to manage the competing ideals.

Author Biography

Karen Tracy, University of Colorado

Karen Tracy (PhD, University of Wisconsin) is emerita professor of communication at the University of Colorado. She investigates face and identity problems in institutional sites of justice and governance. Most recently she is the author of Discourse, Identity and Social Change in the Marriage Equality Debates (2016, Oxford University Press) and Grounded Practical Theory: Investigating Communication Problems (with Robert Craig, 2021, Cognella). Her current project is investigating the challenges jurors confront from responding to questions during voir dire to their courtroom sense-making to deliberating as a group.


th Judicial District/ Boulder County. Retrieved from

-state chart of small claims court dollar limits. Retrieved from

Aakhus, M. (2001) Technocratic and design stances toward communicative expertise: How GDSS facilitators understand their work. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 29(4): 341-371. http://dx.doi/org/10.1080/00909880128113 DOI:

Aakhus, M. (2007) Communication as design. Communication Monographs, 74(1): 112-117. http://dx.doi/org/10.1080/03637750701196383 DOI:

Aakhus, M. (2017) Design. In C. R. Scott and L. Lewis (Eds.), The international encyclopedia of organizational communication Vol. 2, 652-661. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Aakhus, M., and Jackson, S. (2005) Technology, interaction, and design. In K. Fitch and R. Sanders (Eds.), Handbook of language and social interaction 411-435. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Abel, R. L. (Ed.) (1982) The Politics of Informal Justice: The American Experience (Vol. 1). New York: Academic Press.

Barge, J. K., and Craig, R. T. (2009) Practical theory in applied communication scholarship. In L. R. Frey and K. N. Cissna (Eds.), Routledge Handbook of Applied Communication Research (pp. 55-78) New York: Routledge.

Bestf, A., Zalense, D., Bridges, K., and Chenoweth, K. (1993) Peace, wealth, happiness and small claim courts: A case study. Fordham Urban Law Journal, 21(2), 343-379.

Burton, P., Crawford, C., and Finkelpearl, S. (2009) A process for web design success. Retrieved from

Collins, H., and Evans, R. (2007) Rethinking expertise Vol. 3. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. DOI:

Conley, J. M., and O'Barr, W. M. (1990a) Rules versus Relationships. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Conley, J. M., and O'Barr, W. M. (1990b) Rules versus relationships in small claims disputes. In A. D. Grimshaw (ed.), Conflict Talk: Sociolinguistic Investigations of Arguments in Conversations 178-196. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Craig, R. T. (2020) Models of communication in and as metadiscourse. In M. Bergman, K. Kirtiklis and J. Siebers (eds.), Models of Communication: Theoretical and Pilosophical approaches (pp. 11-33) London: Routledge.

Craig, R. T., and Tracy, K. (1995) Grounded practical theory: The case of intellectual discussion. Communication Theory, 5(3): 248-272. http://dx.doi/org/10.1111/j.1468-2885.1995.tb00108.x DOI:

Craig, R. T., and Tracy, K. (2014) Building grounded practical theory in applied communication research: Introduction to the special issue. Journal of Applied Communication Research 42(3): 229-243. http://dx.doi/org/10.1080/00909882.2014.916410 DOI:

Craig, R. T. and Tracy, K. (2021) Grounded Practical Theory: Investigating Communication Problems. San Diego, CA: Cognella.

Goerdt, J. A. (1992) Small claims and traffic court: Case management procedures, case characteristics, and outcomes in 12 urban districts. Williamsburg, VA: National Center for State Courts.

Goffman, E. (1955) On facework: An analysis of ritual elements in social interaction. Psychiatry: Interpersonal and Biological Processes, 18, 213-231. http://dx.doi/org/10.1136/bmj.325.7368.817 DOI:

Houwen, F. van der (2015) "If it doesn't make sense it's not true." How Judge Judy creates coherent stories through "common-sense" reasoning according to the neoliberal agenda. Social Semiotics 25: 255-273. http://dx.doi/org/10.1080/10350330.2014.996947 DOI:

Hughes, J. M. F. (2018) Progressing positive discourse analysis and/in critical discourse studies: Reconstructing resistance through progressive discourse analysis. Review of Communication, 18(3): 193-211. http://dx.doi/org/10.1080/15358593.2018.1479880 DOI:

Jackson, S., and Aakhus, M. (2014) Becoming more reflective about the role of design in communication. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 42(2): 125-134. http://dx.doi/org/10.1080/00909882.2014.882009 DOI:

Mertz, E. (2007) The Language of Law School: Learning to "Think Like a Lawyer". New York: Oxford University Press. DOI:

O'Barr, W. M., and Conley, J. M. (1985) Litigant satisfaction versus legal adequacy in small claims narratives. Law and Society Review, 19(4): 661-702. DOI:

O'Barr, W. M., and Conley, J. M. (1988) Lay expectations of the civil justice system. Law and Society Review, 22(1): 137-162. DOI:

Robles, J. S. (2012) Troubles with assessments in gifting occasions. Discourse Studies 14(6): 753-777. http://dx.doi/org/10.1177/1461445612457490 DOI:

Ruhnka, J. C., and Weller, S. (1978) Small Claims Courts: A National Examination. Williamsburg, VA: National Center for State Courts.

Sprain, L., and Ivancic, S. (2017) Communicating openness in deliberation. Communication Monographs, 84(2), 241-257. http://dx.doi/org/10.1080/03637751.2016/12561241 DOI:

Tiersma, P. (2008) The nature of legal language. In J. Gibbons and M. T. Turell (Eds.), Dimensions of Forensic Linguistics (pp. 7-25) Amsterdam: John Benjamins. DOI:

Tracy, K. (2010) Challenges of Ordinary Democracy: A Case Study in Deliberation and Dissent. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press

Tracy, K., and Robles, J. S. (2013) Everyday Talk: Building and Reflecting Identities (2nd ed.) New York: Guilford.

Weger, H., JR., and Aakhus, M. (2005) Competing demands, multiple ideals, and the structure of argumentation practices. In F. H. van Eemeren and P. Houtlosser (Eds.), Argumentation in Context Vol. 2, pp. 181-195. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. DOI:

Weller, S., Ruhnka, J. C., and Martin, J. A. (1990) American small claims courts. In C. J. Whelan (Ed.), Small Claims Courts 5-23. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Wolfe, A. W. (2016) Organizing collective action amid the ripple effects of change: Narratives of crisis, disaster, and opportunity. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 44(1): 1-21. http://dx.doi/org/10.1080/00909882.2015.1116704 DOI:



How to Cite

Tracy, K. (2021). Delivering justice: case study of a small claims court metadiscourse. International Journal of Speech, Language and the Law, 27(2), 181–208.