Understanding the Small Claims Court Process in 5 Steps
June 2024
Understanding the Small Claims Court Process in 5 Steps

It’s an unfortunate fact of life that sometimes, people don’t pay you what they owe. This, obviously, applies to so many situations, from late rent to contractually owed amounts to money owed for work done. There’s a perfect venue for such disputes, especially if the amount that’s owed is minor: Small Claims Court.  

It’s a unique, relatively informal place, quite different from every other court. In other words, Small Claims Court isn’t anything at all like the ones you see on Law & Order. Ordinary people usually represent themselves (though they are able to be represented by an attorney). The straight-forward rules basically make it accessible for everyone and the judges often don’t follow usual court procedures and rarely throw out cases on a technicality. The practical reality is, they often pressure parties to settle. These judges want to come to a fair decision in the circumstances, and they often bend procedural rules to do so. 

The only hurdle to filing a Small Claims Court claim is the amount. Every state has a different cap. For example, California Small Claims Courts limit claims to $10,000 or less and, if it’s a business claim, $5,000 or less. Also, you should know that Small Claims Court is only for civil disputes, so they don’t hear criminal, immigration, workers’ compensation, or other cases. 

If you’re going to file a claim in Small Claims Court, it’s important that you know what to prepare, what to expect, and how the Small Claims Court process works, so let’s get into it.  

1. First, exhaust your alternatives

Before beginning the process of suing someone in Small Claims Court, try to collect your debt through phone calls, letters, or other ways. Essentially, you should think about going to court as your last resort. Even though the filing fees are reasonable and it’s a simple process, it is, after all, still a court action. Note that one of the benefits of a LegalShield Membership is collection letters written by a provider lawyer, so you should take advantage of that service before filing your claim. 

2. Fill out the right paperwork 

In order to get a court date, you need to fill out the correct forms and submit the appropriate documents: for example, the signed contract that’s the subject of the dispute. In some states, you must send the party who you’re suing a demand letter before you file a claim, or you must officially serve the other party with a lawsuit. Also, there are different rules about what proper “service” means. Finally, as mentioned above, make sure that the amount you’re suing for falls below the maximum claim. 

3. Prepare your case

As you prepare for your court date, make sure that you check the rules on who needs to appear in court. It’s very important to do this, as these cases move quickly. They’re usually heard within a few months of filing a claim. 

 If you’re relying on witnesses, make sure that you contact them to see if their recollection of the facts is similar to yours. In some jurisdictions, a witness affidavit (a sworn statement) will suffice. Further, proper preparation means practicing. Small Claims Court judges hear several cases a day, so you won’t have days and days to present your arguments. Practice them and keep your presentation concise and related to the facts that are necessary and relevant to your case.  

 Your LegalShield provider law firm can help explain what to expect and what information may be most important. Call and speak to a small claims court lawyer today if you have any questions. 

4. Be respectful

You don’t need to watch My Cousin Vinny to know that making a good impression with the judge by being respectful goes a long way. Show up early, dress appropriately, and treat the judge and all staff with dignity. Address the judge as “Your Honor” and don’t interrupt or be confrontational. And have all your documents and your witnesses lined up and ready to go when your case is called by the court clerk. 

5. Follow up

Once the judge makes their decision on your case, it’s not over. You need to follow up with the court to make sure that the judge’s money judgment is enforced. And you might need to take further action to get the losing party to actually pay you, for example, getting a wage garnishment or a lien on property. There’s also an appeals process, so be aware that the other side may go that route. 

LegalShield Can Help

If you’re considering filing a claim in Small Claims Court, reach out to LegalShield for help. Provider lawyers are experts in such cases and, even if they don’t represent you at trial, they can help you prepare and get that extra edge you need to win. Whether it’s collecting a debt, a neighbor dispute, a disputed sales transaction, or any other type of civil dispute, LegalShield is here to help you get the justice that you deservefor less than $1 a day. Reach out to us today!