What is a Small Claims Court?
Small claims court allows you to sue a person, business, or government agency that you think owes you money. Generally, one can only sue for up to $10,000 in small claims court (or up to $5,000 if you are a business). One can seek advice from a lawyer prior to attending court, yet having legal representation in court is not allowed.
Can I Avoid Small Claims Court Altogether?
Sending a Demanding Letter
Did you know you have one more option before small claims court? Before filing a claim, consider sending a letter demanding payment. This often allows people to resolve the dispute outside of court and avoids the time and fees associated with court. Read more about how to write an effective demand letter and how best to send it to the person who owes you money. Alternatively, use tools such as JusticeDirect to generate and send a custom demand letter for free and leave the headache out of it!
Should I Sue?
If sending a demand letter does not result in getting paid, it may be time to take court action. Use JusticeDirect’s step-by-step tool to determine if filing a claim is right for you.
How Does Small Claims Court Work?
Filing Your Claim
Each county has different filing options:
- Dropbox option may be temporary due to Covid-19
- Fax and e-filing may have an additional cost
- Some counties may require additional county-specific forms
Where to file
The location of your filing will depend on the conditions of your case:
- Where the defendant lives or does business
- Where someone damaged the plaintiff’s property
- Where someone injured the plaintiff
- Where the defendant made, signed, performed, or broke a contract (written or spoken)
- Where the defendant lived or did business when the defendant made the contract
- Where the buyer or lessee currently resides, resided at the time of signing the contract, or lives if this claim pertains to an offer or contract for personal, family, or household goods, services, or loans.
- Where the buyer signed the contract, currently resides, or resided at the time signing the contract, if this claim is about a retail installment contract (like a credit card).
- Where the buyer signed the contract, currently resides, or resided at the time signing the contract, or where the vehicle is permanently garaged, if this claim is about a vehicle financed sale
Multiple counties could serve as proper venues to file a lawsuit. For example, if a driver hits you and lives in Los Angeles County, the owner of the car lives in Orange County, and the accident happened in Riverside county, you could choose any of those three counties (L.A., Orange County or Riverside) to file your lawsuit in.
A small claims action requires a filing cost of $30 to $100. Fee waivers may be available if you are unable to pay the cost.
|Claim Amount||Filing Fee|
|$0 – $1500||$30|
|$5,000.01- $10,000 *||$75|
|Frequent Filer **||$100|
*Only individuals, not businesses, can sue for this amount.
**If you file more than 12 cases in a 12-month period, you must pay a $100 filing fee. Additional fees may apply for extra copies of documents.
Length of the Court Process
Normally, a court date hearing will be set around 2-4 months after you file the initial paperwork for your case.
Serving the Defendant
After filing the complaint, you will need to serve the defendant with a copy. This notification makes them aware that someone has filed a case against them, calling for them to respond accordingly and attend the hearing.
There exist different options when serving the defendant, and the options may differ depending on what is allowable by your county court. Some of the options may have a fee, but if you win the case, it will become reimbursable by the other party.
You may be able to serve through:
- A professional process service
- Certified mail
- County’s sheriff/marshall
- If allowed by the court, a friend/family member may also have a serve the complaint.
- Most importantly, you cannot do it yourself if you are a party in the case.
The Court Hearing
After filing the complaint, the court will schedule a hearing for the case. It will typically be several weeks to months from the date of filing.
Both parties will have the opportunity to present their case and any evidence they have to support their claims. The judge will listen to both sides and make a decision based on the law and the evidence presented.
Enforcing the Judgment
If the judge rules in your favor, a judgment will be awarded that the defendant will have to pay. This is a formal way for the court to indicate that the defendant now owes you money. The court will not be paying you directly. If the defendant does not pay the judgment voluntarily, you may “collect” on the judgment, which may include garnishing the defendant’s wages or seizing their assets. Additionally, an appeal cannot be filed l if you initiated the case and lose since the judge’s ruling is final. However, if you are sued and lose, you can appeal the decision.