Small claims court is the division of your state's lowest court that has jurisdiction over cases involving a small amount of money--usually less than $1,500. A judge will preside over a case, acting as both judge and jury to resolve civil disputes of all types, ranging from contract disputes to allegations of property damage. Before filing a suit, you should be familiar with the court and your responsibilities as a party.
The primary purpose of small claims court is to provide a less formal and relatively inexpensive forum in which disputing parties can resolve civil matters. The plaintiff and the defendant present their arguments and evidence to a judge who, after hearing both sides, will enter a judgment or dismiss the case.
Small claims court allows litigants to resolve their disputes without the need for a lawyer. Given the simple nature of the litigated issues and the informality of the hearing itself, the parties are not gravely disadvantaged by representing themselves. In fact, the cost of hiring an attorney for representation may often reach or exceed the maximum dollar amount the plaintiff is suing to recover.
Every small claims court has specific rules pertaining to when a suit can be filed, how long a defendant has to respond, when a counterclaim must be filed and when an appeal can be taken. To avoid having a judge dismiss the case due to a statute of limitations, plaintiffs should file suit as soon as it becomes clear that the parties cannot resolve their dispute. There may also be a limit on how many suits a party can bring during a certain period. Defendants must be aware of time limitations as well, especially with regard to filing an answer.
Before deciding to sue someone in small claims court, plaintiffs should consider whether the defendant is judgment-proof. If the defendant lacks the financial means to pay the judgment if the plaintiff wins the case, the plaintiff will not be able to recover. Other considerations that plaintiffs should keep in mind prior to filing are the strength of their evidence, whether they can obtain all the evidence needed to prove their case, costs associated with filing the suit, and whether there are alternative methods of dispute resolution. Also, some jurisdictions do not allow certain parties to sue in small claims court, such as businesses that are suing other businesses.
One of the most common misconceptions about small claims court is that there is a right to a jury. There is no jury in small claims court, only the judge. If a party wishes to have a jury trial, the parties must take the case to civil court. Plaintiffs should also remember that the judge may refuse to hear complex cases, even if the court has jurisdiction, because small claims court is for resolving simple disputes only.
- Photo courtesy: Southern Fried