Small Claims Cases

Small claims court is a forum where people can have their legal disputes heard without the expensive and time-consuming process of a full trial. Small claims cases are usually informal proceedings, where litigants can present their own evidence and make their own arguments directly to the judge. The judge then renders a verdict after hearing both sides of the case.

What Kinds of Cases Can I Bring in Small Claims Court?

Small claims courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, meaning that they can only hear specific types of cases. Most small claims courts can only hear civil cases involving small amounts of money, usually $10,000 or less. Although small claims courts can hear most types of civil cases, such as contract disputes and personal injury claims, most courts do not hear family law cases, such as those involving child support, or probate cases. Practically anyone can bring a small claims case or be sued in small claims court, including individuals, large corporations and small businesses.

Can I Hire a Lawyer?

Many states do not allow parties to be represented by lawyers in small claims court, because some of the main advantages of small claims cases are their informality and inexpensiveness. Some states, however, do allow attorneys, but many impose additional rules and procedures on parties that choose to be represented. Regardless of whether or not your state allows attorneys, you are still permitted to consult with an attorney outside of court, so long as you file and argue the case yourself.

What Happens When I File My Suit?

When you file your small claims lawsuit, the court will notify the opposing party by issuing a summons to appear in court. You will then have to attend court to prove your case. Many states, such as California, provide mediators to help the parties make one last effort at resolving their disputes before taking the case to the judge.

What Should I Bring to Court?

When your court date arrives, you should bring with you anything that will help prove your case or defend against the claims of the opposing party. This could include copies of contracts you signed with the opposing party, receipts for disputed purchases, or photos of injuries or damage caused by the opposing party. You should also bring with you any witnesses whom you wish to testify on your behalf. If a witness refuses to attend, you should speak to the court clerk about issuing a subpoena to require the witness to attend.

What if the Other Party Doesn't Show?

If a party does not appear on the court date, the court most likely will enter a default judgment against the absent party. The party that did show can then have that judgment enforced in court. In rare cases, the court may postpone the case if the other party was absent due to an actual emergency, such as a medical emergency or a car accident, but the judge usually has total discretion over whether to do so.

Can I Appeal a Small Claims Judgment?

Most states have some way to appeal a small claims verdict, but the process and the parties' rights to an appeal vary from state to state. Many states put strict time limits on filing appeals, and some states allow small claims cases to be appealed to different courts, such as the superior or district court for the jurisdiction. Litigants wishing to appeal a small claims case should consult their state's laws to determine what rights they have to an appeal, if any.

Next Steps

Contact a qualified attorney to help you with preparing for and dealing with going to court.

Help Me Find a Do-It-Yourself Solution