How Does Small Claims Court Work?

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The claims limit in small claims court is small, but the thinking behind the court is expansive. Court lawsuits are notoriously expensive, time-consuming and often too complex for a non-lawyer to tackle alone. That means that low-income people and even those in the middle class can't rely on the court system to settle their conflicts. Enter small claims court, where the price of entry is low, the process is simple and the entire matter gets wrapped up in less time than it would take to get the first hearing in a regular trial court.

What Is Small Claims Court?

The courtroom isn't tiny, nor are the crowds using small claims courts minuscule. But many things about small claims courts are modest, like the filing fees, the shorter waiting time before a court trial and the formalities. Small claims court is intended to be a trial court reduced to its most basic elements where you don't have to be versed in the law or wealthy to settle conflicts.

Every state has a small claims court system, and the details and rules of each vary. But the basic system is the same. If you have a claim that is fairly small in terms of dollar amount, you can file your case in small claims court for a low filing fee. The complaint form is simple and informal, and you are assigned a hearing date relatively soon. The hearing itself is before a judge or commissioner, but formal rules of procedure and evidence don't apply. Instead, each side presents its case, and the judge decides whether the claim is valid or not, then enters a judgment.

Read More: How to Take a Person to Small Claims Court

How Much Does It Cost to File a Claim in Small Claims Court?

Each state sets its own small claims court filing fees. However, the fee is always small, just a fraction of the filing fees in the state trial courts. For example, in California the small claims court filing fee is between $30 and $75 depending on the amount of your claim, while the fee to file in superior court is around $400. Massachusetts filing fees also depend on the amount you are claiming in damages. They run from $50 to $150.

Can a Lawyer Appear in Small Claims Court?

Small claims court procedures are deliberately designed to be simple enough that ordinary people can handle them. And some states, like California, enforce that intention by requiring that people represent themselves in small claims court without a lawyer present. In other states, like Illinois and Massachusetts, you can hire an attorney to represent you if you wish, but you don't have to.

Can You Appeal a Small Claims Court Judgment?

You can appeal a small claims court judgment to the trial court in some circumstances. For example, in California, the person bringing the action cannot appeal, but if you were the person sued, you can appeal to the superior court. Note that the court reviews the case in what is called a "trial de novo," not taking the former judgment into account at all. That means that if you won part and lost part of the decision, all will be reconsidered by the superior court. In Massachusetts, only the person sued can appeal the decision to the trial court. The court reviews the entire case with fresh eyes, but it can take into account the decision in the small claims court.

Tips

  • Small claims court is a forum for people to get their legal cases heard quickly and simply, but the courts can only decide cases asking for damages within state-mandated limits, usually under $10,000 and, in some states, much lower.