Instant Court Case Lookup

The following is for information purposes only

Small Claims Cases

What Is a Small Claims Court?

Filing a lawsuit in a state court or district court is not always straightforward. Without an attorney, it can be challenging to navigate the complicated procedures in regular courts. What's more, if a person's case doesn't have a high dollar value, hiring an attorney can be very pricey.

Small claims courts solve most of these problems. People with simple and low dollar value court cases can present them to a judge for adjudication without observing the formalities of a traditional civil court. One can also avoid expensive legal fees.

Small claims courts have a limited jurisdiction that resolves civil cases involving private parties. The justice system established these courts to offer individuals a simple and cost-effective way of settling a court case involving small amounts of money.

Typically, these courts don't use juries. A judge or magistrate makes the decision. Parties in a small claims case present legal and factual arguments without attorney representation. The parties may bring witnesses to testify. They can also introduce documents like receipts, contracts, or photographs.

What Is Required to File a Small Claims Case?

For a case before a small claims court to succeed, the litigants and the legal proceeding must meet specific requirements. If the matter or parties don't meet these requirements, the lawsuit must be filed in another court.

Some of these requirements include:

  • A person must be 18 years of age to bring a case to a small claims court.
  • Institutions that lend money for interest - like banks - cannot file a suit in a small claims court. The law also prohibits collection agencies from making minor claims proceedings.
  • Small claims courts can only hear disputes that involve a certain amount of money. In most jurisdictions, small claims cases cannot be worth more than $5,000. State law sets this amount, and it can change from time to time.

If a person wins in a small claims court, they can only recover cash and cannot recover more than the amount of money set by the court.

The court cannot order people to act or stop acting in a certain way, nor can it compensate parties with property or services. The court cannot guarantee that the losing party will pay the money judgment.

What Types of Cases Are Filed in a Small Claims Court?

Small claims courts are courts of limited jurisdictions, meaning they can only hear certain types of cases.

One has to check with their state to find general information on the limits of their legal matter. However, small claims courts hear the following:

  • Breach of contract cases
  • Real property damage claims
  • False arrest claims
  • Libel or slander cases
  • Counterclaim to a suit
  • Claims involving eviction notices or unlawful dispossessions
  • Professional negligence claims (like bad motor vehicle repairs)
  • Collection on debts or loan repayments
  • Personal injury claims (like dog bites)
  • Claims on the return of a renter's security deposit or personal property

On the other hand, most small claims courts will not hear:

  • Family law cases like divorce, child support, or guardianship cases
  • Name change cases
  • Bankruptcy cases
  • Personal injury cases that involve serious injuries or damages
  • Probate cases

How Do Small Claims Cases Work?

Since these proceedings don't work like regular courts and have much less sophisticated procedural rules, the small claims court process is more straightforward. It might look something like this:

  • The plaintiff pays a filing fee which is one of the court costs required to present the case. Once the plaintiff pays this fee, the court clerk issues the plaintiff some court forms to fill. One must know where the defendant lives, their correct name, contact information, and other essential information for the small claims forms.
  • After the plaintiff files the case, the court will serve the opposing party with a subpoena to appear in court. Details of the plaintiff's claim may be in the court summons, so the other party knows what the suit is about.
  • Some states provide mediators to help the parties make a last effort to resolve the dispute before appearing in front of a judge. If this fails, then the case is taken to court.
  • The parties then have to prove their case on the appointed court date. The parties speak directly to the judge.
  • Both sides present evidence and make their arguments on the trial date.
  • After hearing both sides, the judge issues a verdict. The judge may make a small claims judgment involving either a wholesome payment of the amount owed to the plaintiff or make a payment plan that the defendant should follow.

The downside of small claims courts is the lack of attorney representation. If one chooses to represent themselves, they will not receive any legal advice during the process. Therefore, the case will depend on the evidence and how well they present it.

In most states, a person can make a notice of appeal in a superior court if they are unsatisfied with the judge's ruling. The superior court reviews the small claim court's decision and can either uphold or reverse it depending on the review's findings.

Where Are Small Claims Case Records Found?

People can find small claims case records in the places below:

  • Online - E-filing of court documents is common today. Most courts keep an online record of cases which one can access through the Public Access to Electronic Court Records service (PACER). Alternatively, most courts have self-help services online that can assist in getting a hold of these records. These services are particularly effective if you know the case and docket number.
  • Courthouse - If the small claims case records aren't available online, one can go to the clerk's office in the courthouse where the case was filed or heard. The clerk will help one access these records.