Under most state rules in the United States, lawyers are not allowed in a small claims court. However, if you are suing or are being sued by an attorney, then you could request to be represented by a lawyer as well. Nevertheless, in most cases, a small claims settlement is done directly in front of a magistrate without lawyers present. This is not such a big deal and you can make the most of self-representation by being prepared and honestly putting forth your own case.
What is a Small Claims Court
The "Small Claims Court" is a part of a state's court system that typically hears civil cases between private litigants, where the claimant tries to resolve a monetary dispute where the amount of money does not exceed $5000 (this limit may slightly vary from state to state). The aim of such a court is to provide an inexpensive and quick platform to resolve small claims without the litigants having to go through any complex legal procedures and without engaging the services of lawyers.
General List of Claims Filed in a Small Claims Court
Given below is a list of typical claims filed in a small claims court. Remember that the money limit condition remains the sole criteria for a claim (and counterclaim as well) to qualify for settlement in a small claims court. The nature of the complaint or its urgency do not matter!
- Claim to refund of money made as down payment, back rent or security deposit
- Claim on dud checks
- Claim for payment of wages, contract dispute for labor
- Claim on damages or refund on faulty workmanship or defective merchandise
- Claim on damages to property due to an accident
You cannot file a complaint with a small claims court for claims arising from alimony support, professional malpractice, domestic or marital disputes, libel or slander, damage to your reputation (defamation charges) or claims valued above the money limit of a small claims section.
An important thing to remember is that if you are suing in a small claims court to save time, but are actually entitled to damages exceeding the money limit of the court, you're effectively forfeiting your claim on the remaining amount. In case you decide to go ahead with a small claims settlement on the partial amount, you cannot claim the remaining money in a separate lawsuit!
Representing Yourself in a Small Claims Court
Preparing to File a Complaint
- The complainant must be 18 years of age or older. If not, the parent or guardian may file the actual complaint.
- Be aware of the statute of limitation that defines how long you have to start a case (depends on the type of case).
- The Office of the Special Civil Part of the county where the case is filed must be the residence or office/business location of at least one of the defendants.
- You may even file the case for claims online (available in most states). This is usually possible for a fixed amount of money. The defendant receives the printed court order on the same day of filing! Check if this works for your case.
- For an in-court settlement, if you're the plaintiff, ensure to fill the complaint form properly. Fill in your own address, the defendant's address, telephone numbers, claim amount and all the other details correctly so as to ensure proper service of your complaint.
- Sign the form and pay the correct fees for filing. The clerk/staff of the Special Civil Part can be consulted for these procedures.
- The cost of filing a complaint may differ from state to state. If you cannot afford the cost, you may apply to the court to grant you a waiver by qualifying you as an indigent.
- Trace out all the records that would support your claim or counterclaim such as canceled checks, bills, contracts, photographs, etc. If you need the support of witnesses, ensure they are ready and available to testify. Be ready with all the paperwork and evidence.
- If you need legal advice or knowledge about state statutes, ensure to consult an attorney at the earliest about arguments that could prove your claim.
Small Claims Court Proceedings
You will be notified (through a notice of allocation) about the time and place of the hearing. In fact, you might be asked to deal with the claim without a hearing. A lack of reply will be treated as the need for a preliminary hearing where the magistrate might explain or give personal directions to the concerned parties. Subsequently, a final hearing may take place.
The following information will be useful for you to represent yourself in a small claims court.
- Dress appropriately, in a professional manner and follow basic courtroom etiquette. Arrive on time.
- The staff at the Office of the Special Civil Part will be more than ready to answer any questions that you may have before the hearing. However, that does not substitute legal advice; take them as recommendations or suggestions only.
- You may even find an information booklet when you go to pick up your claim form.
- If you're the defendant and fail to show up, the default ruling may be against you and you may be directed by the court to settle the claim to the plaintiff.
- When providing a list of documents to support your case, present it neatly, in a chronological order.
- Don't worry, you don't have to sound or act like a lawyer. You will find the proceedings in a small claims court rather informal and not as strict regarding rules of evidence. Mostly, just follow the directions of the magistrate and you should be fine.
- If you're not comfortable speaking English, you can have your interpreter speak on your behalf (notify the magistrate in advance) but the court does not usually provide an interpreter.
- You will most likely be assigned a time limit in which the hearing needs to be completed, so ensure that you're making the most of the time allotted.
- The magistrate may appoint a mediator to help settle your case.
- If you win the case, the Judgment Collection Brochure will have information about how to collect your judgment (including court costs). However, the court does not force the defendant to settle the claim immediately! If the claim is not settled voluntarily according to the judgment, you will have to take additional steps to recover the claim. Consult the clerk of court for the exact procedure for judgment debtor exam, garnishment of wages, etc.
- If the final ruling is not in your favor, as the plaintiff or defendant you may appeal against the ruling; you will not get back the court fees. The procedure varies from state to state. Appeals are generally accepted only if there have been serious irregularities in the proceedings.
Self-representation in a small claims court is not a big deal from the legal proceedings perspective. As a claimant, you might find it to be a quick and hassle-free process if the defendant is willing to co-operate on some level (such as agreeing to mediation or final judgment, etc.). For small claims, it does not make sense for a claimant or defendants to appoint a lawyer and start a full-fledged legal proceeding.
However, a small claims suit should not be the first resort. Ensure that as a claimant you have asked for the claim out of court. If you're the defendant, and if you feel the claimant has every right to the claimed amount, it is best to avoid a hearing and pay up. It is best to resolve disputes without litigating. In case you do choose the small claims court as your next step, the above tips will hopefully help you win your claim.
Disclaimer: This article is only an informative passage and does not intend to substitute legal advice. You are recommended to consult a qualified legal professional before your decision on the final course of action.