Filing a Small Claim in Small Claims Court

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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If you’re in the process of filing a small claim and heading to court, you know it can seem a little daunting. It’s not a complex task, but it is extremely important to make sure you complete every step and that you keep track of what comes next so you can be fully prepared. The following is a basic overview of the process of filing a small claim that will help you stay well-informed at each point along the way.

Understanding the Process of Filing a Small Claim

Here are the basic steps involved in filing a small claim, along with some general tips for handling each phase of the process.

  1. When you have the information you need and are ready to file, visit the court clerk of the county where you reside, the county where the defendant resides, or the county where the problem occurred (which location you choose is up to you).
  2. The clerk will provide you with a Statement of Claim, which is a document you must fill out by providing information on who the defendant is, what the nature of the case is, where the person can be located, and various other details. When the statement is completed, you will be charged a filing fee by the county clerk.
  3. Once your statement is filed, the defendant will be served a notice of the impending trial, which will include a court date at which he or she will have to appear. Depending on the court, you may need to have the defendant personally served by the sheriff or a registered process server, or in other courts you may have the defendant served by simply having the court mail them the paperwork. You should ask the clerk of the court where you intend to file about the proper way to serve the defendant.
  4. Your first court date most likely will not be your trial; instead, it will be your pre-trial hearing or mediation, both you and the defendant will be required to attend. Attendance is vital – if you do not appear, your case can be dismissed, while if the defendant fails to appear, the judge may automatically rule against him or her. Assuming both parties show up to the pre-trial hearing, the judge will attempt to work out the dispute between the two of you right then and there, with the goal of avoiding a trial. If the negotiation fails, and if the judge feels the defendant has a valid reason for refusing to agree with you (or vice versa), some courts at that point set up a date for mediation so you and the defendant will attempt to settle the dispute.
  5. If mediation is successful, all due fees will be ordered paid and the case will be closed. If mediation does not succeed and neither side is interested in a compromise, a court date will be set.
  6. When you’re filing a small claim, your trial will take place in front of a judge: you should come prepared with witnesses, evidence, and an organized statement of factual events. The defendant will most likely come prepared with similar support for his or her side of the argument, and it will be up to the judge to decide the final outcome.
  7. If the judge rules in your favor, the defendant will be ordered to pay up on your claim within a certain number of days. Note that the judge will typically decide the case on the same day, as soon as both sides have finished presenting their cases. Occasionally, a judge may ask for additional time to consider the evidence and will provide the parties with a final decision via mail at a later dateYou have the right to appeal a court decision if you’re unhappy with the outcome – as does the defendant. In some courts, though, if you file the claim the outcome for you is final, while the defendant may appeal if they are unhappy. The key thing to remember when filing a small claim is that the process itself may be time-consuming and stressful, but its final goal – a fair and just outcome – is worth the effort.

Getting Help Filing Your Small Claim

While many states do not allow individuals to have legal representation during the small claims court process, others do. If your state allows you to have legal representation, make sure to take advantage of this right and bring a small claims attorney to help you prove your case and present the evidence in the manner most likely to convince the judge to see things your way. If you aren’t allowed small claims legal representation in your state, you may still want to consult with an attorney to get experienced legal advice as you prepare to deal with the legal technicalities of your case.

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