Is it complicated to take a case to small claims court?

UPDATED: Jul 14, 2023Fact Checked

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Jeffrey Johnson

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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: Jul 14, 2023

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UPDATED: Jul 14, 2023Fact Checked

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.

Case Studies: Navigating Small Claims Court Proceedings

Case Study 1: Representing Oneself in Small Claims Court

A plaintiff finds themselves in a dispute with their landlord over the return of their security deposit. With a limited amount at stake, they decide to take the case to small claims court without hiring a lawyer. Before the trial, they research the rules and procedures of small claims court in their jurisdiction to understand what to expect.

They gather evidence such as their lease agreement, photographs of the rental unit’s condition at move-in and move-out, and communication records with the landlord. During the trial, they present their case, adhering to the rules of evidence and procedure. The judge, recognizing the plaintiff’s preparedness and adherence to the court’s guidelines, rules in their favor and orders the landlord to return the security deposit.

Case Study 2: The Importance of Proper Defense Notification

In another scenario, a defendant is served with a small claims court lawsuit related to an alleged property damage incident. Unfamiliar with the legal process, the defendant neglects to respond or notify the court of their intent to defend within the specified timeframe.

As a result, a default judgment is entered against them, leading to an automatic win for the plaintiff without a trial.

The defendant later realizes their mistake and seeks legal advice. Unfortunately, it is too late to reverse the default judgment. This case emphasizes the importance of promptly responding and notifying the court of a defense when facing a small claims court lawsuit to avoid severe consequences.

Case Study 3: Understanding Discovery and Admissible Evidence

A plaintiff files a small claims court lawsuit against a contractor for incomplete and substandard work on their home renovation project. Before the trial, the plaintiff requests relevant documents, such as the contract, invoices, and correspondence, from the contractor through the discovery process.

They also compile photographs showcasing the deficiencies in the completed work. During the trial, the plaintiff presents the gathered evidence, ensuring it aligns with the rules of evidence in their jurisdiction. The judge considers the admissible evidence and rules in favor of the plaintiff, awarding them compensation for the contractor’s poor performance. This case demonstrates the importance of understanding the discovery process and the rules governing admissible evidence in small claims court.

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Jeffrey Johnson

Insurance Lawyer

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...

Insurance Lawyer

Mary Martin

Published Legal Expert

Mary Martin has been a legal writer and editor for over 20 years, responsible for ensuring that content is straightforward, correct, and helpful for the consumer. In addition, she worked on writing monthly newsletter columns for media, lawyers, and consumers. Ms. Martin also has experience with internal staff and HR operations. Mary was employed for almost 30 years by the nationwide legal publi...

Published Legal Expert

Editorial Guidelines: We are a free online resource for anyone interested in learning more about legal topics and insurance. Our goal is to be an objective, third-party resource for everything legal and insurance related. We update our site regularly, and all content is reviewed by experts.

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