How to File in Small Claims Court

By CelesteHarrison

Nearly every state court has a small claims court, although not every jurisdiction calls its small claims court "small claims court." Small claims court adjudicates matters below a certain dollar amount, such as cases less than $10,000. Some small claims courts allow lawyers; others do not. Cases usually decided in small claims court include minor car accidents, property damage, breach of contract (oral or written) and other minor civil disputes. If you wish to sue or have been sued in small claims court, these tips can help you prosecute or defend your action.

Find out if your small claims court has a Web site. Because small claims courts cater to parties who represent themselves (pro se) without a lawyer, many provide instructions written for the lay-party. If your small claims court does not have a Web site, call and see if the court provides written instructions at the courthouse, or if court will mail you the instructions.

If you are filing a claim in small claims court, you will probably be required to fill out specific forms for the court. The court may require a filing fee which you must pay upfront for the court to accept your claim. You may be able to file "in forma pauperis," which would allow you to file without paying the filing fees. However, such petitions are not regularly granted by many small claims judges.

Once you have filed your small claims action, you must serve the party (or parties) you are suing. Every jurisdiction has different requirements for service upon a defendant. You may only need to mail your papers to the defendant at his or her home, or you may need to send the papers by registered mail or personal service. The small claims court will have information on how to send your papers. If someone at the court cannot help you, information regarding service of the court papers is often included on the forms provided by the court.

If you have been sued in small claims court, the papers you received should provide you with a court date for a hearing. You should attend the hearing. If you cannot attend, call the court and find out how to postpone the hearing. Do not ignore the papers, the hearing will occur whether you are there to defend yourself or not. If you do not attend, a default judgment will be entered against you and you may be responsible for the judgment, regardless of whether you are guilty of the allegations or not.

To prepare for the hearing, bring everything you have that relates to the action: receipts, photographs, witnesses, contracts, papers, anything that has a record of the event or of the time just prior or just after the event.

If you do not like the judgment you receive in small claims court, you can appeal. An appeal will probably require another filing fee and more forms. You will probably be required to file your appeal within a limited amount of time. If you fail to file your appeal within the allotted time frame, the judgment will stand.