Small Claims Court


Also found in: Dictionary, Financial, Wikipedia.

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.

References in periodicals archive ?
Peter Hallwood outside his property in Runcorn where he paid [pounds sterling]5,000 to repair the damaged roof but the job was so poor Peter took them to a small claims court and won.
My view is that the most important reforms in the judiciary that will reshape people's perceptions, and use of the judicial system, are those at the level of small claims courts and family courts.
This problem has become significant in the last few years, as more and more people are representing themselves in Small Claims Court. Due to the significant rise in self-representation, one hopes that the court system will evolve to better meet the needs of self-represented litigants.
This subcommittee has begun analyzing and determining forms for use in the small claims court by defendants, most of which tend to be pro se individuals.
After Apple refused to service the smartwatch under warranty, Cross took the manufacturer to his local small claims court, arguing that it was in violation of the U.K.'s Sale of Goods act, which governs contracts for products sold.
Lisa Dipper: Small claims court? All for PS30 as if!
The new Consumer Ombudsman aims to fill gaps in the existing system, with experts saying that up until now, many people have faced the choice of having to accept whatever a company offers to put the situation right or paying to go to the small claims court.
For a price that makes sense, consumers can receive representation resolving disputes before they go to small claims court. If a matter ends up in small claims court, consumers can use the affordable Legal Value Firm[TM] attorneys to counsel and prepare them for their day in court, removing the anxiety and uncertainty of going it alone.
Is the best course of action is the small claims court? Brian via email Martin says: I'm not sure what fees you mean, there shouldn't be any?
I have found a test case at Cambridge Crown Court where the parking operator won, resulting in costs of hundreds of pounds for the defendant; complaining to the DVLA under the Data Protection Act - another internet source advises that anyone can request the address of a car owner, as long as they have just cause, and "at worst, a small claims court would award only losses to these private companies which is nil in most cases" - see comment above re Cambridge Crown Court.
Angela is considering action via the small claims court.
The task force made no fewer than 131 detailed recommendations, running what was then the access-to-justice gamut: better access to legal aid; redesigned state institutions like small claims court and the administrative tribunals; the promotion of alternative dispute resolution; and what was the farthest frontier of access to justice at the time, "preventive law".