Navigating Small Claims Courts: Your Guide to a Favorable Outcome

by | Nov 13, 2023 | blog

In life, there is always the possibility that you may run into a small claims dispute. Whether it is a financial matter, a property issue, or a personal injury, the situation can be stressful and overwhelming, especially if you are unfamiliar with the legal process involved.

To better prepare yourself for this type of lawsuit, you need to understand the basics of small claims courts, so it will be easier for you to navigate the process and achieve a favorable outcome!

What Are Small Claims Cases?

Small claims cases are a type of civil lawsuit that is handled in a special court known as the small claims court. These courts were created to provide a more efficient and affordable way for individuals and businesses to resolve disputes that involve relatively small amounts of money.

Depending on the jurisdiction or state, a small claim typically has a monetary limit of between $2,500 and $25,000. This means that if the amount in dispute exceeds the specified limit, it cannot be handled in a small claims court and must instead be filed in a higher court.

In California, the monetary limit for a small claim is $10,000 or less for individuals and $5,000 or less for businesses. These limits are set to ensure that parties involved in these types of cases can represent themselves without the need for an attorney. This makes the process less complicated and expensive.

Who Can File a Small Claims Case?

In general, anyone who is 18 years or older can file a lawsuit in small claims courts. However, there are certain restrictions and requirements that must be met in order to file a small claims case.

For individuals, they can only sue for themselves or on behalf of their minor children. They cannot represent a business entity in a small claim unless it is a sole proprietorship.

On the other hand, businesses can file a small claim in their business name or under a Doing Business As (DBA) name. However, corporations, LLCs, partnerships, and other similar entities must be represented by an authorized agent or attorney.

How Do Small Claims Court Processes Work?

The first step in filing a small claims case is to properly identify the person or entity being sued. The defendant must also be located within the jurisdiction of the court where the claim will be filed.

Once you have identified and located the defendant, you can start filling out the necessary paperwork for your case. This includes providing detailed information about yourself, as well as the defendant, and outlining the details of your dispute.

After submitting your paperwork to the small claims court, you will be given a date for your case. On this day, both parties will have the opportunity to present their side of the dispute and provide evidence to support their claims. This is often done through testimony, documentation, or witness statements.

The judge will then make a decision based on the evidence presented and issue a verdict. If you are the plaintiff and the verdict is in your favor, you will be awarded the amount of money you requested in your claim. However, if you are the defendant and the verdict is against you, you will be required to pay the specified amount.

In some cases, a small claims court may also suggest mediation or alternative dispute resolution methods before a trial takes place. These are meant to help both parties come to a mutually agreeable solution without having to go through a full trial.

7 Court Rules to Follow When Filing Small Claims Cases

plaintiff preparing for a small claims case

As we previously mentioned, there are certain court rules that you need to follow when filing small claims cases. These rules may vary depending on the jurisdiction or state, but in general, they include the following.

1. Only Particular Actions Can Be Filed in a Small Claims Court

Before filing any case, make sure that it is allowed in a small claims court. Here is a list of examples of cases that are usually accepted in these courts.

  • Breach of contract
  • Minor personal injury claims
  • Property damage
  • Failure to return a security deposit
  • Unpaid rent or bills
  • Disputes with an automotive business
  • Breach of warranty claims

Apart from these, some claims under your state’s consumer protection laws are also accepted in these courts.

On the other hand, cases such as criminal offenses, divorce, and disputes over title to land, are not suitable for small claims courts. Instead, they should be filed in district court or other appropriate courts.

2. There Is a Limit to How Much Money Owed

Again, the monetary limit varies from state to state. So, if the money owed to you or by you exceeds a certain amount, the case may not be appropriate for a small claims court.

3. The Lawsuit Will Be Handled by a Judge or Magistrate

Remember that there are no jury trials in small claims courts. Instead, a judge or magistrate will hear the case and make a decision based on the evidence presented. This is why you should have all the necessary documents and evidence to support your claim.

4. You Must File Your Case in the Correct Jurisdiction

Jurisdiction refers to the geographical area where a court has the authority to rule on legal matters. In small claims court, the jurisdiction is usually determined by where the defendant lives or does business. If you file your case in the wrong jurisdiction, it will be dismissed and you will have to start over.

To ensure that you are filing in the correct jurisdiction, do your research beforehand and make sure to include this information when filling out the necessary paperwork.

5. You Need to Complete Filing Forms Before Your Case Is Accepted

If you are the plaintiff, you will need to complete and submit certain forms before your case is accepted by the court. These forms include a complaint notice, which states the reason for your claim, and a summons to notify the defendant to appear for the trial. This means you need to hire a professional process server to deliver the document for you and then file an affidavit of service.

If you are the defendant, you need to receive the paperwork from the plaintiff and respond accordingly. Appear in court on the scheduled date and be prepared to present your side of the case. Failure to do so may result in a default judgment against you.

6. There Is a Filing Fee 

Remember that there is a court filing fee for small claims cases. The amount varies by state but it is typically low compared to other courts.

7. The Court Will Not Help Collect Judgment

If the court decides in your favor and awards you a judgment, the court will not assist you in collecting payment from the defendant. It is solely your responsibility to collect what you are owed. This is why you should see whether the defendant has enough assets or income to pay before filing a small claim. You can also hire a professional debt collector or utilize other methods, such as wage garnishment to collect payment.

It is also worth mentioning that the court will not assist in enforcing a judgment against an individual who is incarcerated, bankrupt, or deceased. In these cases, it may be more difficult to collect what you are owed.

Is It Better to Get Legal Representation for Small Claims Cases?

Yes, it is always good to have a lawyer represent you in any legal matter. However, it is not a requirement for small claims cases. Most of the time, people represent themselves in these types of courts without hiring an attorney. It is a more affordable and convenient option for those who cannot afford to hire one.

However, if your case involves complex legal issues or involves a significant amount of money, it is beneficial to seek legal representation. A lawyer can help you navigate the small claims court process and ensure that your rights are protected all throughout.

Do You Need Some Papers Served for a Small Claims Case?

Now, if you are a plaintiff filing a lawsuit at one of the small claims courts in California and need to have the necessary documents served, speak with us here at DR Legal Process. We can help you accurately and efficiently serve the paperwork to ensure that your case proceeds smoothly.

Contact us today for more information on our services!