4 Things You Should Know When Taking Someone to Small Claims Court 

Small claims courts are commonly known as the “People’s Court” for good reason. These courts were designed to handle everyday civil problems involving small amounts of money (ranging anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000). Small claims courts offer individuals an informal, accessible, and cost-effective way to resolve their problems. 

Usually, claimants in small claims courts do not have to worry about the civil rules of evidence or deal with complex civil procedure rules. This allows them to represent themselves without the need for a lawyer. The elements outlined above make small claims courts a good option for the everyday person trying to resolve all types of disputes. However, here are four essential points to keep in mind before pursuing a small claims action. 

Can the Court Hear Your Case? 

Jurisdiction is the legal term for having authority or power to hear and decide a case. Before taking someone to small claims court, you need to make sure the court has the power to hear the case you intend to file. 

Most small claims courts can hear a variety of civil cases ranging from personal injury to breach of contract. However, some small claims courts limit the types of cases that are considered “small claims.” 

For example, in some small claims courts, you may not be able to sue for libel. Others may limit the type of relief you can receive if you win. Sometimes the court can’t order someone to return your property but would be able to order them to pay you for the value of the property. 

The most common types of disputes we see in small claims courts are:

  • Disputes over security deposits. For example, a landlord refuses to return a tenant’s security deposit as per the appropriate security deposit laws; 
  • Disputes against mechanics and auto repair shops. This can range from improper repairs to damage to a car; 
  • Disputes over property damage. For example, car accident cases where the party at fault does not want to pay for the damages they caused; 
  • Disputes against contractors. These types of disputes range from a variety of different issues as well. The dispute can be over a breach of contract, faulty home repairs, or property damage; 
  • Disputes between consumers and businesses. This can be for things like poor service, defective products, damaged products;
  • Disputes between landlords and tenants. Conflicts between landlords and tenants are frequent in small claims courts and generally involve unpaid rent or claims over security deposits. 
  • Disputes against airlines. For example, a passenger’s luggage was lost or damaged while their luggage was in the care of the airline. 

What Is the Limit of Small Claims Court?    

All small claims courts have a monetary limit; this is the maximum amount you can sue someone for. From what we have seen, most small claims limits are $10,000 on average. 

For example, in New York City, you can file a small claims lawsuit against an individual or a business for up to $10,000. 

You can still sue in small claims if the case exceeds the small claims limit. However, you will have to waive any additional money you are owed. Let’s say you want to sue your neighbor in a New York City small claims court. Your neighbor owes you $12,000, so you can sue for $10,000 and agree to waive the $2,000. 

If you don’t want to waive additional costs, maybe taking someone to a small claims court is not the right court for you. You may want to sue in a regular civil court instead. 

Will You Have to Represent Yourself? 

Small claims courts were designed so that you could represent yourself in court without the need or assistance of a lawyer. In some small claims courts, the rules even prohibit a lawyer from representing you in court. 

You need to know before taking someone to small claims court that you will be representing yourself at the hearing. Remember, small claims courts have simplified procedures that make it possible for the everyday person to prove their claims without the assistance of a lawyer. This option empowers small claims claimants to seek justice in court on their own. 

However, be careful if you have a complex case that requires you to know about nuanced areas of law. Consider consulting with a lawyer that has experience with the specific law you are dealing with. For example, negligence is a complicated area of law but claims for negligence arise quite often in small claims court. To establish liability, a small claims claimant is required to prove several elements, which can be challenging without proper guidance. A lawyer can help a small claims claimant better understand these elements and what type of evidence is necessary to prove their case in court.

How to Prepare for Hearing 

Even though small claims courts are informal in terms of court and evidence procedure, claimants should still make sure they prepare for their hearing. Most small claims hearings last anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes, so it’s crucial they are well-prepared. This means you should consider preparing an opening statement, a well-organized evidence packet, etc. 

Being well-prepared to win small claims hearing also means:

  • You know what your claim is about (the dispute at hand); 
  • You know how much the party you are suing owes you; 
  • You have the evidence to back up these claims;
  • You can demonstrate this information in a concise and organized manner to the judge. 

Sometimes, claimants with strong cases are unable to prove their point because of a lack of supporting evidence or, even worse, because they can’t read through their evidence and get to the parts that support their claim. 

Remember, the point of taking someone to small claims court is to find justice and relief for what the other party has put you through. To make the most of your day in court, make sure you are well-prepared and organized. 

Main Takeaways

Small claims courts empower everyday people to seek civil justice for themselves. However, before pursuing a small claims case, potential claimants should keep four essential points in mind. First, they need to make sure the small claims court is the right court to hear their claim. This means the court has the power to adjudicate their type of case. Along those same lines, potential claimants should ensure the amount they are suing for falls within the small claims limit in the court they wish to file. 

Additionally, potential claimants should be aware they may need to represent themselves in small claims court. This may not be a good thing if the claim being brought deals with a complex civil dispute or a particularly nuanced area of law. Lastly, because there is a chance claimants will be representing themselves, they should prepare accordingly for their small claims hearing. Being prepared, in this instance, means knowing what the case is about, articulating the facts of a case in front of a judge, and having sufficient and well-organized evidence. 

Article by Camila Lopez

Camila Lopez is the CEO & Co-Founder of People Clerk. Camila is also an attorney, consumer advocate, and mediator. Her passion is breaking down complicated legal processes so that people without an attorney can get justice.

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