Small claims court is a special type of civil court set up by the states. States differ as to whether attorneys can represent parties. In most states, a party can hire an attorney to represent them. In a few states, such as California, Michigan, and Nebraska, a party must represent themselves. A party may bring documentary evidence and witnesses to support his argument.
In civil court, a judge typically hears disputes about large sums of money. In small claims court, a judge hears disputes over relatively small amounts of money. States have different rules about what constitutes a small amount. In California, an individual in a small claims case cannot ask for more than $10,000. In Florida, a party cannot ask for more than $5,000.
How Small Claims Court Is Different
Small claims court procedures are usually simplified and informal, especially when compared with standard civil court. Just as in standard civil court, the person who files the claim is called the plaintiff. The person who has the claim filed against them is called the defendant. Both of these individuals are also called parties.
Read More: How Does Small Claims Court Work?
How to File a Case
The plaintiff should complete the court forms that include a plaintiff’s claim. A court may have a small claims advisor to help the plaintiff complete and review these forms. A plaintiff can also go to a public law library and use self-help books to complete the forms.
How Much Is the Filing Fee?
The plaintiff is required to pay a filing fee to file a case in small claims court. The amount of the fee varies widely. It is dependent on state rules and county ordinances. In some states, such as California and Florida, the filing fee is based on the amount that the plaintiff requests from the defendant.
A fee may also be based on the number of claims the plaintiff has filed in the past 12 months. A plaintiff who cannot afford to pay the filing fee can complete a form for a fee waiver or deferral.
Types of Cases in Small Claims Court
The plaintiff can use small claims court to sue for back rent, unpaid loans or wages, minor property damage and minor contract disputes. Parties cannot use small claims court to resolve disputes involving workers' compensation, divorce, probate or malpractice.
How Long Does a Plaintiff Have?
The amount of time a plaintiff has to file a small claims case depends on the type of injury the plaintiff suffered, such as breach of contract or nuisance. A plaintiff should consult her state’s rules to find the statute of limitations for her type of case.
Who Will Win the Case?
If the plaintiff does not show up for small claims court, the judge will usually dismiss the case. If the defendant does not show, the court may enter a judgment against him.
Who Can Appear in Court?
Another entity can come in a party’s place if certain conditions are met. For example, in California, if a business in a small claims case is a corporation, an officer or director must appear in court on behalf of the corporation. If the claim can be proved by evidence of business records, the employee most knowledgeable about the records can appear, but that person cannot be hired just to represent the corporation.
Procedures for Small Claims Court
A small claims case is typically resolved through court proceedings, which may include a hearing, pretrial conference and trial. There are other ways to resolve a dispute beyond small claims court. Some states, like New York, have community dispute resolution centers that offer free mediation.
Jessica Zimmer is a journalist and attorney based in northern California. She has practiced in a wide variety of fields, including criminal defense, property law, immigration, employment law, and family law.