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What is small claims court?
Small claims court is a simple, speedy and informal court process in which the plaintiff (the person suing) is seeking a money judgment of $6,000 or less. Parties involved in small claims cases often represent themselves but they may also hire an attorney. Small claims court is a session of the District Court.
Anyone can bring a case or be a defendant in small claims court with a few exceptions. For example, you cannot sue a city or town in small claims court.
Examples of small claims cases
- Collecting a debt for goods or services owed by an individual or business;
- A purchase of unsatisfactory goods from an individual or business where the person will not refund your money, give a credit, provide an acceptable exchange, or repair the goods;
- Your former landlord has refused, without justification, to return a security deposit;
- Your former tenant has refused to pay for damage to rental property the tenant is responsible for; or
- You loaned personal property to someone and he or she did not return it, or returned it in damaged condition.
What is the difference between small claims and civil court cases?
|Small Claims Cases in District Court||Civil Cases in Superior Court or regular District Court|
|Damages and related relief cannot be more than $6000.||No limit on money damages; equitable relief also available.|
|Can represent yourself or hire a lawyer. Corporation or other legal entity can be represented by an employee or other principal even if not a lawyer.||Can represent yourself or hire a lawyer. Must hire a lawyer if a corporation or other legal entity.|
|Filing fees are less expensive.||Filing fees are more expensive.|
|Rules and procedures are simpler and less formal. Rules of evidence not strictly applied.||Rules and procedures are more formal. Rules of evidence apply.|
|The judge decides the case without a jury.||Jury trial is available for cases filed in or removed to Superior Court.|
|Pre-hearing discovery is not available.||Pre-trial discovery is available. Discovery must be conducted according to court rules and procedures.|
|Mediation is available before the small claims hearing is held to try to resolve the dispute.||Depending upon the type of case and in which court filed, mediation or another form of Alternative Dispute Resolution may be required or available.|
|The hearing is generally held more quickly.||The trial is generally held later.|
|If the plaintiff loses, the plaintiff can appeal to the Superior Court on questions of law only. If the defendant loses, the defendant can appeal to the Superior Court on questions of law and/or fact and request a jury trial (jury fee required).||Either side may appeal on questions of law to another court.|
Starting a small claims case
Read A Guide to Small Claims Cases for a complete explanation of the court process, definition of key terms, and additional resources. A printed copy of the guide and blank court forms are available at any District Court clerk's office.
- To start a case, you will need to complete a Statement of Claim (SC-001). You may download the fillable form from our Forms page, or obtain a free, blank fillable form from any district court clerk's office. See District Court
- After completing the Statement of Claim, you have to serve (provide notice of the case to) the defendant.
- After you receive verification that the defendant has been successfully served, you will need to file the Statement of Claim with the clerk's office within 20 days and pay the filing fee. If you cannot afford the filing fee, you can ask the court to waive it by filing an Application to Proceed without Payment of Fees.
- Both parties will get a Notice of Small Claims Hearing from the clerk's office with the date, time, and location of their small claims case by mail.
What should I do if I have been sued in small claims court?
If you received notice that a small claims case has been filed against you, do not ignore the case. Even though you are not required to submit a written response, you should be prepared to respond by going to the hearing.
If you want to raise a defense or contest the case, you must go to court and present your side at the hearing. If you do not show up, you will likely lose the case by default.
As a defendant in a small claims case, there are several things you can do to respond:
- If you owe money to the plaintiff, you can try to work out a settlement;
- You can contact a lawyer or legal assistance organization for advice;
- You can prepare and present your side of the case at the hearing.
What happens in court?
First, the judge will likely ask if both parties would like to attempt to settle the case by talking to a mediator from the Court Alternative Dispute Resolution Service (CADRES). If mediation is unsuccessful, the court then holds a hearing. Learn more about mediation
In the hearing, the plaintiff goes first. The plaintiff has to show by testimony and other evidence that the defendant is liable for the money being sued for.
The defendant may also testify and offer other evidence. Both sides may call witnesses. All testimony is given under oath, which means that the person testifying promises to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, to the best of his or her recollection and belief.
The judge hears the case without a jury and decides whether the evidence offered entitles the plaintiff or the defendant to win. After the hearing is over, the judge announces the decision, or, sometimes, takes the case "under advisement." If this happens, the parties will receive the decision by mail after the judge has had a chance to consider the evidence further or do legal research. The judge's decision is called a "judgment."
Collecting a small claims judgment
If the plaintiff wins and the defendant does not pay the small claims judgment voluntarily, the plaintiff will need to take additional steps to collect. A common step is to request that the defendant (now also called the judgment debtor) go to court for a Disclosure Hearing to determine whether the defendant/judgment debtor has sufficient income or assets to pay the judgment.
Appealing the case
Either side can file a Notice of Appeal within 30 days of losing a small claims case. A plaintiff can only appeal on a question of law, which means that the judge made an error in applying the correct legal principle to the case. A defendant can appeal on a question of law or a question of fact.
For more information on bringing, or responding to a small claims case, see A Guide to Small Claims Cases.