A Beginner's Guide to Resolving Disputes in Small Claims Courts

By Teo Spengler ; Updated June 13, 2017
Courthouse facade against blue sky

"See you in court!" This aggressive exit line reflects an ease with the court system that many people don't feel. You too can feel comfortable about taking a dispute to court if you learn your way around small claims court. It's an informal, inexpensive and rapid method of resolving some disputes.

If you don't know anything about small claims court, the process might seem intimidating. But it was designed for people just like you – people who don't have a legal background but do have a dispute. Here are tips for getting started in small claims court.

What is small claims court?

With filing fees for municipal and superior courts topping $400 in some states, it's hard to justify to suing over a cleaning deposit or a small debt. The small claims court system was designed specifically to provide a forum for resolving smaller disputes.

All 50 states have small claims courts, and state laws differ on the requirements and process of bringing a case. They have different maximum damage amounts, different laws about whether attorneys are allowed and different procedures. But each state system allows a regular person to resolve a small dispute without investing a lot of money or time.

What are the benefits of using this court?

Ordinary citizens think twice before filing a law suit in a regular court. The process is notoriously expensive, especially since you often need to bring in an attorney. It is also a notoriously long haul, and an average case can drag on for years before resolution.

Small claims court is cheap. Some states like California and Michigan forbid attorneys from appearing in small claims court to represent litigants, and no states require you to bring an attorney. The processes are simple and informal, designed for people who are representing themselves. Filing fees are minimal.

Small claims court is also quick. While the exact time frame varies between states and cases, the Oregon court system reports that small claims cases there are usually completed within two to eight weeks after a complaint is filed. And, equally important, you don't have to comply with lots of complex rules and procedures like you do in regular state courts.

What types of cases can you take to small claims court?

Most case brought to small claims court are those asking for money damages, but the disputes themselves can involve any type of civil case. You can bring contract disputes, landlord-tenant issues, bad debts and accident cases, and you can sue or be sued by individuals, corporations and small businesses. You are generally limited to money damages. That means that most cases are to recover money. The limits range from $3,000 to $10,000, depending on which state you live in.

You generally cannot sue for relief other than money. For example, you cannot seek divorce, bankruptcy or child custody rulings in small claims court. A few states allow you to bring cases seeking eviction. In a few states you can also sue for the return of your property someone else is holding.

How do you get a small claims court case started?

While you don't have to hire an attorney or read up on legal procedure to get a small claims court case started, you do have to follow your state's rules. Your best bet is to get instructions from the court itself or go online to a state self-help website about small claims court. These will walk you through the steps.

Small claims court cases begin with a complaint or a petition. The court gives you forms and you just fill them out. You need to provide your name and contact information and the name and contact information for the person or business you are suing (termed the defendant). In some states, like California, you must establish that you made an informal effort – like writing a letter – to resolve the matter before suing. When you file your papers, the court clerk will assign you a date and time for a hearing.

You'll have to arrange to have the papers handed to the defendant. Many courts will arrange for the sheriff to do this for a fee, but any adult other than a party to the lawsuit can do it. The defendant can respond within a short period of time, then both of you appear at the hearing and present your case to the commissioner or judge. She will issue a ruling after the case and/or mail a decision to both parties.

About the Author

Living in France and Northern California, Teo Spengler is an attorney, novelist and writer and has published thousands of articles about travel, gardening, business and law. Spengler holds a Master of Arts in creative writing from San Francisco State University and a Juris Doctor from UC Berkeley. She is currently a candidate for a Master of Fine Arts in fiction.