Cases that involve non-criminal matters are tried in civil court. Most civil court cases are about monetary compensation or a division of material assets. Small claims court is part of the civil court system, but certain aspects make it significantly different than other civil court branches.
Civil Court Function
Civil court encompasses property damage, probate issues, family, divorce and child custody matters, contract breaches, landlord/ tenant disputes, child abuse, and juvenile misconduct.
Small Claims Court Function
Small claims courts deal with small scale civil matters like back rent, unpaid personal loans or wages, minor property damage, and minor consumer complaints. Divorce, probate, and malpractice disputes cannot be resolved in small claims court.
Parties in small claims courts must present their cases without an attorney present. In civil court, legal representation isn't required, but it is strongly encouraged.
The maximum amount compensation a plaintiff can seek in small claims court depends on the state where the lawsuit was filed, but it is usually in the $3000 to $5000 range. Damages sought in some civil courts can be unlimited.
Cost and Time
Because they involve attorneys and large sums of money, civil suits can be complex, time-consuming and costly. Small claims cases are usually simple, straightforward, and cost-effective.