Small claims courts are designed to bypass much of the legal wrangling of larger civil cases involving attorneys, large amounts of paperwork and months in trial preparation. Simple civil cases involving smaller sums of money can be presented by the parties involved, without the need for attorneys. They typically require little paperwork and are scheduled quickly to facilitate fast resolution. Each state creates its own laws governing small claims cases; while specific details differ, the process is similar across the country.
Small claims courts are designed for consumers who are capable of researching and presenting their cases. Court clerks may offer limited assistance but not legal advice. Seek the counsel of a qualified attorney if you're confused about your state's small claims process and requirements.
Locations of Small Claims Courts
The organization of state judicial systems varies, but small claims cases are always heard in a lower court. For instance, in Oregon, local Justice Courts hears small claims cases, but Florida residents take small claims cases to County Courts. Check your state's court structure to see which court handles small claims.
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Eligibility for Small Claims Court
Small claims courts have maximum limits for the amount of money or value of property a plaintiff may seek. Each state has its own limit.
The type of civil complaints the small claims court hears varies from state to state, but it can include:
- Money owed for debts or unpaid rent
- Breach of contract
- Damage to property
- Personal injury
- Replevin, a case in which one person has possession of another's property
Some cases are not allowed in small claims court. Regardless of which state you live in, your small claims court will not hear cases involving:
- Custody or guardianship
- Claims against the federal government
Filing a Small Claims Lawsuit
Typically, you'll file your case in the county where the defendant lives or does business. You may also be able to file in the county where the problem occurred.
Initiate your claim by filing a form with the court. Courts have different names for this form, but might call it a complaint, notice of claim or statement of claim. Ask the court clerk for the appropriate form.
Filing fees for small claims cases are much lower than those for larger civil cases. Your court clerk will inform you of the fees required; they're due when you file the case. In most cases, the judge orders the losing party to reimburse the other party for the filing fees.
Small Claims Court Procedures
Small claims courts are informal; the formal civil procedure rules don't apply to this setting. Courts encourage parties to resolve their issues before the court trial; some states require a hearing or arbitration in advance of the trial.
At the trial, both parties present their cases and may provide evidence and witness testimony. Jury trials are rare but allowed in some states.
The person presiding over the court makes a judgment, or decision. In some states, a judge presides; in others, a hearing officer, magistrate, justice of the peace or other court-appointed official makes the legally binding decision.
If the defendant does not appear at the trial, a default judgment is issued, awarding the plaintiff the relief requested.
Check Your State’s Small Claims Laws
While the basics of small claims court are the same nationwide, it's important to learn about your state's laws. In many cases, you'll save time and money by filing your case in small claims court. Seek the advice of an attorney if you're unsure whether small claims court is the best solution for you.