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What Happens in Small Claims Court?

Clients sometimes come to my office regarding a claim they have on a defaulted personal loan or they want to retrieve a security deposit from a landlord or have some other matter where money is due them. In many cases, the amount they claim is too small to warrant being handled in a civil court of general jurisdiction, nor does it justify hiring a lawyer to represent them. In cases like these, generally the best option is to bring the matter to small claims court.

In small claims court, the person who brings the action is called the “plaintiff,” and the person being sued is the “defendant.” With the occasional exception (e.g. corporations), neither side is allowed to have a lawyer present at the small claims hearing, though it is perfectly acceptable (and often, well-advised) to speak to a lawyer before or after the court proceeding.

What types of cases go to small claims court? Here are some typical examples:

  • Disputes regarding property damage
  • Personal injuries following a motor vehicle accident
  • Landlord/tenant security deposits
  • Property damage allegedly caused by a neighbor
  • Disagreement with a contractor concerning a home repair or improvement project
  • Dispute in a homeowner association
  • Collection of money owed

Generally speaking, the highest dollar amount an individual plaintiff in small claims court can ask for is $10,000. (Small businesses and government entities are usually restricted to no more than $5,000.) Once both sides have made their case, the matter is left to the small claims judge to decide. Actually, most small claims matters are heard by “temporary” or “pro tem judges,” who are attorneys who have practiced law in California for at least ten years and who volunteer to assist the court in certain types of cases.

The person who brings a dispute to small claims court may also be entitled to receive costs from the defendant. “Costs” refers to filing fees, witness fees, the expense involved in notifying the person you’re suing, etc. The plaintiff may request the court to add these costs to the judgment—the amount of money the court determines should be paid to you.

Issues in small claims court are generally resolved in a rapid and inexpensive manner. Unlike a matter in civil court, which can go on for many months, a case in small claims court is typically heard within 20 to 60 days from the date the claim is filed. And because the dockets for most small claims courts are extremely full, you must be ready to present your side as quickly as possible. When I meet with clients who are scheduled to appear in small claims courts, I advise them to be sure they’re thoroughly prepared ahead of time. This means having evidence on hand to back up your claim, such as:

  • Bills
  • Contracts
  • Receipts
  • Witness testimony—Usually the witness is required to attend the proceeding
  • Photographs
  • Any other relevant and supporting documents

As noted, both plaintiffs and defendants represent themselves in the small claims court setting. I recommend clients should dress respectably (a sloppy appearance won’t do anything to help your case) and be polite and reasonable in their presentation.

Small claims court serves a useful purpose in settling certain types of disputes. If you feel you have an issue that seems appropriate for this venue, I advise you to contact an attorney experienced in small claims cases beforehand. The knowledge you can gain may prove extremely helpful when you find yourself standing before the small claims judge.

Do you think you may have grounds for a lawsuit but are worried that it may cost too much to bring it to court? The Law Offices of Ian S. Topf offers a free consultation in a variety of issues, ranging from family law, estate planning, bankruptcy, and DUIs and civil matters.