Filing a case in small claims court is a highly cost-effective strategy for resolving all kinds of disputes. In most states, the maximum amount you can sue for has increased substantially in recent years, and court judgments have become far easier to collect. In addition, many states have implemented innovative mediation programs for small claims, which can spare you the time and tension of presenting your case to a judge. So, although more can and should be done to make small claims court a true people's court, it is an efficient forum that gives participants an opportunity to resolve many personal consumer and small business disputes.
The goal of this book is to give people bringing a case and those defending one all the information they need to make the best possible use of small claims court. From deciding whether you have a case through gathering evidence, arranging for witnesses, planning your courtroom presentation, and collecting your money, you will find everything here.
From the bench. Everybody's Guide to Small Claims Court is the only guide to include practical suggestions from two former small claims court judges. You'll see their comments throughout the book.
Everybody's Guide to Small Claims Court has now been in print for more than 25 years. The current edition has been completely updated to reflect literally hundreds of recent practical and legal changes. My goal is to make it the best possible tool to help you answer such questions as:
- How does small claims court work?
- Do I have a case worth pursuing or defending?
- How do I prepare my case to maximum advantage?
- What witnesses and other evidence should I present?
- What do I say in court?
- Can I appeal if I lose?
- How do I collect my judgment?
Proper presentation of your small claims action can often mean the difference between receiving a check and writing one. This isn't to say that I can tell you how to take a hopeless case and turn it into a blue-ribbon winner. It does mean that with the information contained here, and with your own creativity and common sense, you will be able to develop and present your legal and factual position as effectively as possible. In short, this book will show you how a case with a slight limp can be set on four good legs.
Just as important as knowing when and how to bring your small claims court action is knowing when not to. Clearly, you don't want to waste time and energy dragging a hopeless case to court. And even if your case is legally sound, you won't want to pursue it if your chances of collecting from the defendant are poor.
As with any book, I have had to make a number of decisions as to the order in which I cover small claims issues and the depth the book goes into on each topic. For example, the question of whether an oral contract is valid is discussed in Chapter 2 but not again in Chapter 16 on automobile repairs, where it may also be relevant. So please take the time to read, or at least skim, the entire book before you focus on the chapters that interest you most. A good way to get an overview of the entire small claims process is to read the Table of Contents.
In addition to studying the information you'll find here, it's important that you review the materials made available by your state's small claims court. Crucial technical details such as when and where court is held, what types of evidence are allowed and prohibited, and how much it will cost to collect a judgment are covered in more detail in those materials than I can possibly do in this 50-state guide. Fortunately, accessing this material is easy–it's usually available online as well as in free pamphlets available at your small claims court clerk's office. You'll find the URL for your state's small claims website in the Appendix.
Finally, I'd like to say a few words about my many referrals to other Nolo self-help law books and Nolo's website. Lest you think my only goal is to try to sell you another book, let me make three points. First, Nolo is by far the most comprehensive publisher of self-help law materials in the United States. As a result, there are many legal areas where Nolo publishes the only decent materials aimed at nonlawyers. Second, because a huge variety of legal issues can be litigated in small claims court, information in many other Nolo books and in Nolo's free online Legal Encyclopedia may be useful (and is far too voluminous to repeat here). Third, as Nolo's books are available at most American libraries, it shouldn't be hard to look up any needed information at no cost.