How to Take a Person to Small Claims Court

By Joseph Nicholson
Take a Person to Small Claims Court

Western Kentucky University SGA (CC-By 2.5)

If you've been wronged by somebody and want justice, you might be able to take that person to small claims court. The purpose of small claims court is to provide informal and inexpensive access to the legal system in cases where the time and expense of other legal channels would preclude a formal action. Small claims courts can't hear criminal cases or most civil torts--they are usually limited to money claims below a certain threshold. This make small claims ideal for cases of unpaid rent, faulty merchandise and other small business disputes.

Identify state laws. The rules for small claims court are determined by each state. Thus, before you take someone to small claims court, it's essential to locate the small claims laws of your state, keeping an eye on crucial details such as the claim limit, restrictions on types of complaints and proper jurisdiction.

Find the court. A small claims case will only proceed if it's filed in the correct court. Most states allow a small claim in the county of the filer's residence. Others require the claim be filed in the county of the defendant's residence or place of business or in the county where the cause for the claim originated. Usually identifying the correct county and the circuit court for that county is not difficult, but in complex situations, review the state laws or consult with a legal professional.

File a petition. Unlike higher courts, where the complaint is a completely new document, the small claims petition is usually a printed form that lets the petitioner fill in the blanks. The essential information is your name and address and the name and address of the defendant. The form will also provide a few lines for a brief description of the the claim and the damages sought. The petition form is generally available from the local county court, and in some jurisdictions might be available online.

File with documentary evidence. When the petition is filed, it should be accompanied by copies of any documentation in support of the claim. This might include receipts, contracts or leases, but should be limited to what is absolutely relevant. The petition, with these documents, is then submitted to the small claims clerk, along with a modest filing fee, which varies by state.

Effectuate service of process. For the small claims action to begin, the petition and documents must be properly served on the defendant. In some jurisdictions, this is the responsibility of the plaintiff (through a professional process server), while others give the task to local sheriffs or other agents of the court. Consult the laws of the state or the clerk of court for more information on how to serve process in your county.

Appear at the hearing. Once filed, the court will set your claim for a hearing. At this hearing, both sides will be able to present their side of the story and any other evidence, including witnesses. Though small claims is less formal than other courts, the parties to a claim should remain polite and non-confrontational and answer the judge's questions with brief statements of fact. The issue can be decided on the spot, or the judge can take it into consideration and issue a written judgment a few weeks later.

About the Author

Joseph Nicholson is an independent analyst whose publishing achievements include a cover feature for "Futures Magazine" and a recurring column in the monthly newsletter of a private mint. He received a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Florida and is currently attending law school in San Francisco.