Small Claims Court


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Small Claims Court

A special court, sometimes called conciliation court, that provides expeditious, informal, and inexpensive adjudication of small claims.

Every state has established a small claims or conciliation court to resolve legal disputes involving an amount of money that is less than a set dollar amount. At one time, $1,000 was the limit. However, many courts have raised the limit to $3,000, and a few will hear disputes involving amounts of up to $5,000 or more. Small claims courts and the rules that govern them emphasize informality and timely resolution of disputes. Most parties represent themselves in small claims court, in part because the facts of the dispute are simple but also because it makes little economic sense to pay attorneys' fees.

The first small claims court was created in Cleveland in 1913. Within a few years every state had such a court of limited jurisdiction. Small claims courts are attractive for consumers who want to collect a small debt or recover damages for a faulty product or for shoddy service. However, small claims courts are used heavily by businesses and Public Utilities that want to collect payments from customers for unpaid bills. In a single court session, a department store, utility company, or hospital may obtain judgments against a long list of debtors, making the process very economical.

To bring an action in small claims court, a person must complete a form that is available from the local court administrator. The person must provide the correct names and addresses of all defendants, make a simple statement of the dispute, and state a claim for the amount of money involved. As plaintiff in the action, the person must pay a small filing fee, usually less than $100, to the court administrator. If the plaintiff is successful in the lawsuit, he can recover the filing fee from the defendant, together with any money awarded.

A copy of the plaintiff's statement must be properly served upon the defendant or the action will be dismissed. In some states a deputy sheriff or a process server must personally serve a small claims court summons and complaint for a small fee. In many states, however, service can be accomplished by mailing a copy of the complaint to the defendant. In these jurisdictions it is essential to have an accurate name and address for the defendant.

When the defendant is a corporation, a plaintiff can check with the office of the Secretary of State or corporate registration department to obtain the correct address because a corporation must register the name and address where it can be served with legal process. No restriction ordinarily exists on the type of individual or business that can be sued in small claims court, but a defendant must live, work, or have an office within the area served by the court.

Once the defendant is served with the statement, she will be on notice that a hearing has been scheduled on the matter. A defendant may file a counterclaim growing out of the same dispute against the plaintiff. For example, a plaintiff sues a landscape contractor for planting diseased and dying trees. The plaintiff asks for money to pay to have the trees removed and for a refund of money already paid to the contractor. The contractor could file a counterclaim, disputing the plaintiff's allegations and demanding payment still owed by the plaintiff.

Hearings may be conducted by a judge or by a judicial officer who is not a judge but is usually an attorney. Some sessions of small claims court may be held in the evening so that people need not miss work to attend court. Generally there is no jury, and the judge or judicial officer will make a decision at the end of the presentation of the evidence.

The informality of small claims court extends to courtroom procedure. The rules of Civil Procedure and evidence, which in other courts must be rigorously followed, are generally relaxed in small claims court. Nevertheless, Hearsay testimony (where one witness attempts to tell what another person said) is not admitted. Most small claims courts also will not allow affidavits or notarized statements into evidence because the other side cannot cross-examine the witness. Therefore, a party must bring witnesses to testify to events that they have observed.

Once the court makes a decision, the losing party has a period of time to file an appeal. The appealing party must pay a filing fee to initiate the new review, which in most states results in a new trial before a court of general jurisdiction. The new trial will be conducted with more formality.

If the losing party does not appeal the case, judgment will be entered for the winning party. Once judgment is entered, the losing party can voluntarily pay the amount awarded. If the losing party refuses to pay, the party holding the judgment can take steps to make the judgment collectible. A court can enter an order authorizing the sheriff to serve a writ of execution on the losing party. This writ permits the sheriff to seize and sell assets to pay the judgment.

Though small claims court is an attractive option for many persons, it is not designed to handle complicated litigation or areas of the law that deal with human relationships. Thus, small claims courts do not hear Divorce, Child Support, or other Family Law cases.

Further readings

California Judges Benchbook. Small Claims Court and Consumer Law. 2001. 12th ed. San Francisco: California Center for Judicial Education and Research.

Lebovits, Gerald. 1998. "Equal Justice, Cornerstone of Freedom, May Be Found in Small Claims Court." New York Law Journal (May 1).

Rurka, Brian P. 1998. "Taking Your Case to Small Claims Court." LawNow 22 (February-March).

Warner, Ralph. 2003. Everybody's Guide to Small Claims Court. 9th ed. Berkeley, Calif.: Nolo.

small claims court

n. a division of most municipal, city or other lowest local court which hears cases involving relatively small amounts of money and without a request for court orders like eviction. The highest (jurisdictional) amount to be considered in small claims court varies by state, but goes as high as $5,000 in California. In small claims courts attorneys may not represent clients, the filing fee is low, there is no jury, the procedure is fairly informal, each side has a short time to present his/her case, and the right to appeal only permits a trial de novo (a new trial) at the next court level. Often the judge is an experienced lawyer sitting as a "pro tem" judge. Small claims court is a quick, inexpensive way to settle lesser legal disputes, although the controversies are often important to the participants. The well-known television program People's Court is intended to be a good example of a small claims court.

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