It's not easy even on public television to bounce from a small claims court in Quincy, Mass., to the top of a mountain in Talea, Mexico, and make any kind of sense, but "Little Injustices," tonight's edition of the PBS "Odyssey" series at 9 on Channel 26, does it nimbly, if not dazzlingly.
Anthropologist Laura Nader -- whose looks and speech patterns are eerily similar to those of her famous brother Ralph -- does the hemisphere-hopping to make a point or two about how societies and their judicial systems deal with minor but not unimportant conflicts between individuals or between individuals and companies.
On that Mexican mountaintop, a woman rather promptly gets relief after two youths tip their truck over on her house. But in Quincy it has taken more than four years for a matter involving a $700 payment to the owner of a trailer park to get to court. The judge deals with it in 15 minutes, granting the defendant 60 days in which to launch his own suit against an insurance company he claims was to pay the money.
Only a quarter of the cases brought to small claims courts nationwide are from individuals seeking redress against businesses, Nader says; most are brought by businesses trying to collect money from customers. The reason is that people do not know how to make the system work for them. Yet the system depends on this ignorance in order to survive; if everyone who could take advantage of it did, it would collapse from the burden.
Comparing this system unfavorably with that of a tiny Mexican village is of course not fair, but it may be moderately instructive anyway. The program, produced by Terry Kay Rockefeller, does wander around, but the hour has its insights. It opens with a medley, later recurring, of consumer complaints -- a man with a lame recreational vehicle, a woman with a lemony car, a couple with a bum oven. I liked the way the housewife with the faulty washer gave it a whack as she talked about it.
As the hour ends, TELEVISION comes to Talea, and a local official complains that now the women want automatic tortilla-making machines and that all the TV tells them is "buy, buy, buy." In time, Talea may catch up with the rest of us.