Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Dec 16, 2019

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Small claims courts are courts of limited jurisdiction where the amount involved in the lawsuits initiated does not usually exceed $15,000. Most jurisdictions will not require the parties to these lawsuits to have lawyers but will allow them to represent themselves.

Does this mean that small claims court proceedings are simplified or informal?  

Since the parties may represent themselves, small claims court trials are conducted more informally than when lawyers are involved. The judges or magistrates who preside over the cases will allow unrepresented parties more leeway when presenting evidence. Nevertheless, small claims courts are courts of law where established rules of evidence and procedure will be used. Anyone who is not a lawyer and who is representing himself in court should at least first get the advice of a lawyer before taking action.

An unprepared approach to small claims court could have serious consequences. For example, a defendant who is being sued in small claims court has a limited time in which to let the court know he is presenting a defense at trial. If he fails to do so within this time, he may be precluded from presenting evidence in court or may have a default judgment entered against him.

What should I know about the rules in small claims court? 

The parties in a small claims case also have a limited right to engage in the discovery process. Discovery is the process where, in the course of a lawsuit, documents, witness statements and other evidence is exchanged between the plaintiff and defendant. It allows the parties to be aware of whatever evidence the opposing party may have, so that all parties can prepare their own case with access to all relevant evidence and with an understanding of what evidence the other party intends to present. 

In addition, it is helpful to understand that in small claims court, “rules of evidence” in a particular jurisdiction also determine the types of evidence that are admissible during trial. For example, hearsay or out of court statements are not admissible unless they qualify as an exception to the hearsay rule. There are many different rules of evidence that can differ from state to state.

Should I get help?  

It is important to have some understanding of the law dealing with small claims court cases before going to trial. If you intend to represent yourself in small claims court, you may want to first consult with competent counsel concerning your case. He or she can give you the best advice about how to proceed in your jurisdiction.