Sometimes the cost of hiring a lawyer totals more than the money you’re owed. Small claims court can be a quick and inexpensive way to collect on your own. The court procedures are informal, not intimidating. And a judge, instead of a jury, usually decides the case.
Who Can Sue and Be Sued?
Any individual, business or corporation may bring a small claims suit for the recovery of money when the amount requested is $5,000 or less. So if the amount you’re owed is $6,500, for example, you may want to cut your loses and go after only $5,000 of it, so that you can sue in small claims court, where the procedures are simply and faster than in other courts. Attorneys are allowed, but not required.
Where Do I File a Small Claims Case?
You file a small claims case in the County Courthouse in the county where the party you’re suing (the “defendant”) lives or, in the case of a traffic accident, in the county where the accident occurred. If your case involves a landlord-tenant dispute, you can bring the case where the home or apartment is located. The clerk of the court should be able to determine whether the address is within the boundaries of that court.
Dispute Resolution Services
Before filing a small claims case, the parties are encouraged to try to resolve their differences. Free or low-cost services may be available through the court or local legal clinics. For more information, contact your local court.
How Much Does It Cost?
You must pay a filing fee, which varies depending on the county in which you file and the amount of your claim. You also may have to pay to have the court, the sheriff’s office or a local process server deliver notice of the claim to the defendant. At the time you file the claim, the clerk of the court can tell you what service options are available.
What Happens at Trial?
The trial in small claims court is between you and the defendant. Both parties must prepare their cases and bring those witnesses or other evidence (such as documents, records, photographs or drawings) to court to support their claims or defenses. Witnesses must have personal knowledge of the facts in their testimonies. Documents, records, photographs and drawings must be identified and explained by someone with personal knowledge of them.
If the defendant does not appear at trial, you will be granted a “default” judgment for the amount of your claim, plus your filing and service costs. If you fail to appear at trial, the judge will dismiss your claim.
How Do I Collect the Judgment?
If the court enters a judgment against either party, it that party’s duty to pay without delay. The small claims court does not collect the judgment for you. But you can start trying to collect the judgment by garnishing wages or bank accounts, or trying to locate the personal property of the person who owes the judgment.
How Do I Appeal a Judgment Against Me?
You can file a “motion for a new hearing” with the court within 10 days after the judgment is entered. You can also file an appeal to Circuit Court. Detailed instructions for filing a small claims appeal are available from the clerk of the court.