Do You Need a Lawyer for Small Claims Court? Parties in small claims courts most often represent themselves. Some states don’t allow attorneys to represent the litigants in court at all.
In states that do allow attorneys in small claims court, the participants can choose whether or not to hire one. No matter what state you live in, you can hire legal help to prepare your case.
Do You Need a Lawyer for Small Claims Court?
That said, an attorney may decline to represent or assist you with this preparation. They have certain eligibility requirements and case priorities that may prevent them from taking on your case. Many people represent themselves successfully because small claims courts are more accessible and simpler by design. The court proceedings are meant to be a reasonably fast and relatively inexpensive way to resolve disputes.
What Is Small Claims Court?
Small claims court is designed to bring a quick resolution to legal disputes at a relatively low cost to the litigants. You can bring your civil, not criminal, case in front of a local judge to decide on the merits of the case. Small claims court must be under a specific dollar amount, which varies from state to state. These courts are usually a good choice for people who can’t afford an attorney or who believe their case is simple.
The court process in small claims courts is deliberately simplified and streamlined. You don’t have to be a lawyer, understand the rules of evidence, understand the rules of civil procedure, or have sat for the bar exam to win your case. It’s designed so that people of all educational and professional backgrounds can easily understand what to do.
What Is the Small Claims Court Process Like?
Filling out a lawsuit at a small claims court involves multiple steps. You will want to be extremely careful, as even one mistake can lead to your case being rejected.
Who Should I Sue? Figure Out Who the Defendant Is
When filing a small claims case, you need to clearly state who the defendant is (the person or business you are suing). While this can seem straightforward, it can get complicated in certain circumstances. For example, let’s say you get into a car accident due to a negligent driver who is using a friend’s car. If the driver is not insured, it’ll be difficult for you to collect your claim even if you win. In this situation, you can sue the car’s owner, and if they have insurance, they will be legally obligated to pay for damages.
Request Payment Before the Court
By law, you are required to ask the defendant for payment before going to court and you must prove this when filing your small claims case. This can be done through various means such as asking the person directly through a call, or in writing. A written request is generally the best option as it is easy to present as proof and can also motivate the defendant to resolve the dispute outside the legal system.
Find The Right Court to File Your Claim
Each state across the country has a small claims court, but that doesn’t mean you can file wherever you want. The general rule of where you are allowed to file is that the court must be in the same jurisdiction as where the offense took place. If you file in the wrong court, your case will be dismissed. However, there are some exceptions to this rule, such as the plaintiff being allowed to file cases in the country where the defendant lives or where an incident took place, such as a car accident.
Fill Out Court Forms Properly
It wouldn’t be a court process without paperwork! To start the filing process, you’ll need to fill out the proper forms. The process is typically the same regardless of which state you’re in, but the form names and/or numbers might differ depending on your location. If there are more than two plaintiffs or defendants, most jurisdictions will require that you complete an additional form.
If you need more space to describe your claim or provide witness statements, you’ll have to complete an additional form. Besides these forms, it’s also recommended that you ask a court clerk if there are any other local forms you have to fill out as per state or county regulations.
Figure Out How Much You Have to Pay to File
You will have to include the proper court filing fee when you file your claim with the court, so you’ll need to determine how much you’ll need to pay before you file.
File Your Claim
Once you’ve filled everything out, take your forms and your filing fee to the appropriate court for submission. Make sure to make a few copies before heading down to the courthouse. A court clerk will review each document and may ask some additional questions. If everything is in order, you’ll be given the date, time, and location of your court hearing. Remember that the court will keep the original and give you copies to keep and send to the defendant.
Serve Your Claim
Once your case is filed, the next step is to notify the defendant, or “serve your claim”, which means providing the defendant with copies of the filed form informing the defendant what you’re seeking in damages, where and when the trial will be, and what they have to do. You are not allowed to serve the claim yourself. You will have to hire a third party to do so.
Go To Court
Before you get ready to attend your hearing, you’ll want to prepare. Start by practicing how you’ll explain why you filed your case, and have your arguments ready and your evidence in order. It’s also good to be proactive and think ahead about what the defendant might say or argue and how you will counter that. Having proof that supports your version of events is also critical. It can make or break your case, so do not leave anything to chance.
If you have any of the following, submit them as evidence to strengthen your case:
. Estimate of damages
. Diagrams showing how an accident happened
. Police reports
Getting Your Money After Winning
If you won the court judgment or money judgment, your battle might not be over yet. Some people will refuse to pay you, or they may need a payment plan. The court will not help you get the money you won.
You will have to take the following steps to get the money, which could include:
. Getting “levy” access to their bank account
. Taking their wages directly from their paycheck
. Taking property valued at the same amount of money (taking their car if they cannot pay)
. Using the local courts to find out what assets the person has
. Sending a questionnaire asking how the person will pay or what assets they own
. Asking the other person questions about their assets while they are under oath
You can also consider getting an attorney just for this part of the case because it can be troublesome or time-consuming. If you know you are trying to collect $10,000, then an attorney’s fees can feel like less of a burden. Or you may need to choose between not getting your money or paying an attorney to help you.
Typical Case Heard in Small Claims Court
Small claims courts—or conciliation courts, as they’re called in certain states — handle a variety of cases. But they only handle civil cases. You can’t bring criminal cases, immigration cases, child protection cases, appellate cases, or federal cases to a small claims court. This court also won’t hear cases where the amount of money in dispute is over the monetary limit set by the state’s supreme court.
. Common disputes heard in small claims court include:
. Landlord-tenant disputes (like eviction or a security deposit issue).
. Overcharges for faulty or improper repairs on a car, electronics, or some other form of personal property.
. Disputes over a contractor’s or repair person’s work that was supposed to be done.
. Unpaid bills and debts.
. Medical expenses for a minor personal injury.
. Sales transactions dealing with property, money, or services that weren’t received.
. Claims for payments.
. Gym contract disputes
. Neighbor disputes
Why You Don’t Need an Attorney in Small Claims Court
. Most small claims cases are relatively straightforward. Your time before the judge will likely be less than 30 minutes, and your chances of success are more tied to filing the appropriate paperwork correctly and having a reasonable claim.
. Most states don’t allow claims involving larger sums of money or challenging arguments to take place in small claims court. These types of cases are typically heard in civil court or limited civil court.
. Small claims cases are typically not worth the cost of hiring a lawyer so it’s unlikely the defendant in your case will hire a lawyer even if they are allowed by the court to do so.
You can hire an attorney for full representation, limited representation, or assistance with preparing your small claims case. Your choice will depend on your state’s laws and your ability to pay. Hiring an attorney for a small claims case can be cost-prohibitive and often not worth it. Many people represent themselves successfully because small claims courts are more accessible and simpler by design.
The court proceedings are meant to be a reasonably fast and relatively inexpensive way to resolve disputes.
If I Lose My Case in Small Claims Court, Can I Appeal?
The answer depends on the state in which you live. Many states allow the losing party to appeal within a certain period, usually between 10 and 30 days, and obtain a new trial. In some states, appeals must be based solely on the contention that the judge made a legal mistake and not on the facts of the case. Other states have their own unique rules.
Do I Have to File My Small Claims Court Case Within a Specific Timeframe?
Yes. States establish rules called “statutes of limitations” that dictate how long you can wait to initiate a lawsuit after the event giving rise to the lawsuit occurs. The statute of limitations rules apply to all courts, including small claims.