Small claims procedures are established by state law. This means there are differences in the operating rules of small claims courts from state to state, including the maximum amount for which you can sue; who can sue; and the what, where, and when of filing papers. There are even differences in what small claims court (or its equivalent) is called in the different states, with justice, district, municipal, city, county, and magistrates court among the names commonly used.
Although the details of using small claims courts vary from state to state, the basic approach necessary to prepare and present a case is remarkably similar everywhere. But details are important, and you should do three things to make sure you understand how small claims court works in your state:
- Look up your state's small claims rules. An excellent summary of each state's small claims rules is available on the Nolo website.
- Obtain your local small claims rules from your small claims court clerk's office.
- Check out your state's small claims website.
The purpose of small claims court is to hear disputes involving modest amounts of money, without long delays and formal rules of evidence. Disputes are normally presented directly by the people involved. Lawyers are prohibited in some states, including Michigan and California, but are allowed in most. However, the limited dollar amounts involved usually make it economically unwise to hire a lawyer. The maximum amount of money for which you can sue (in legal jargon, the "jurisdictional amount") is set by state law, too. While these amounts vary state by state, the range is from as low as $1,500 (Kentucky) to as high as $15,000 (Delaware).
Check your state's jurisdictional amount before you file. You can find this online on the Nolo website or through your small claims court or state website.
There are three great advantages of small claims court:
- You get to prepare and present your own case without having to pay a lawyer more than your claim is worth.
- Filing, preparing, and presenting a small claims case is relatively easy. The gobbledygook of complicated legal forms and language found in other courts is kept to a minimum. To start your case, you need only fill out a few lines on a simple form (for example, "Defendant owes me the sum of $4,000 because the 2010 Neon he sold me on January 1, 2012, in supposedly 'excellent condition' died less than a mile from the car lot"). When you get to court, you can talk to the judge in plain English without any legal jargon. Even better, if you have helpful documents or witnesses, you can present them to the judge without complying with the thousand years' accumulation of rusty, musty procedures, habits, and so-called rules of evidence required in other court cases.
- Small claims court doesn't take long. Most disputes are heard in court within two or three months from the time the complaint is filed. The hearing itself seldom takes more than 15 minutes. The judge announces a decision either right there in the courtroom or mails it within a few days.
But before you decide that small claims court sounds like just the place to bring your case, you will want to answer a basic question: Will the results you expect to achieve balance out the effort you will have to expend? Even in small claims court, a successful case will probably take ten to 20 hours to prepare and present and, depending on your personality, may actually cause a few sleepless nights.
In order to assess whether your dispute is worth the effort of bringing to court, you will want to understand the details of how small claims court works. Being clear about who can sue, where, and for how much is a good start. You will also want to learn some basics about the law and your case to answer such important questions as whether you are likely to win and, if so, how much. And, of course, even if you conclude you do have a winning case, you'll want to understand how best to prepare and present it. Finally, and most importantly, comes the detail that so many people overlook, to their later dismay. Assuming that you prepare and present your case brilliantly and get a judgment for everything you request, can you collect the money? The ability to get paid seems a silly thing to overlook, doesn't it? Unfortunately, many plaintiffs who go through the entire small claims procedure and come out winners have no chance of collecting a dime because they have sued a person who has no money and no reasonable prospect of getting any.