Laws and Procedures for Small Claims Filing

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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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Nobody wants to have to go through a court hearing, but if you find yourself in the position of having to make, or respond to, a small claims filing, the least you can do is fully educate yourself. While the process of a small claims filing is not complex, it can be tedious, and it’s important to know what to expect so that you’re prepared for each step along the way. Whether you’re the one filing a small claim or the one being served, you should be aware of a few basic laws and procedures that apply to small claims court.

How to Handle a Small Claims Filing

The three basic principles listed below are a good starting point for understanding the small claims filing process.

1) There will be many opportunities to settle without having to go to trial.

Because small claims cases tend to be pretty simple, many don’t necessarily require a full trial. In the interest of speed and efficiency, the small claims process offers many chances for either of the two sides involved to speak up and offer to settle rather than going through with the trial.

Many courts require a pre-trial hearing. If the judge determines that there is valid evidence on both sides to justify a trial, the judge may still offer the parties a mediation session in one final effort to avoid the hassle and expense of a trial. Some courts require mediation without a pre-trial hearing. Keep in mind that this is a good thing: it’s not meant to cheat you out of justice, but rather to keep the case in perspective and to offer an expedient solution. If you don’t want to settle without a trial, you are not required to do so.

2) Correct filing of the paperwork is more important than you may think.

Everyone knows that court filings are serious business, but when it comes to small claims filing, not everyone takes the paperwork seriously enough. Remember that even though your case may be more casual than it would seem in a higher-level court, there’s no excuse for slacking on the paperwork.

The information you provide to the court must be complete, accurate, and on time. The court will not be interested in excuses. The full calendar and fast pace of most small claims filing courts give clerks every reason to throw your case out if you have not submitted the proper paperwork, and then you’ll be stuck doing it all over again. This is your case – take it seriously.

3) Evidence, not emotion, is what matters most.

Maybe it’s the influence of Judge Judy, but many people make the incorrect assumption that small claims court, because of its comparatively low status within the court system, is casual and even rules-free. Thus, rather than approaching their case from a factual point of view, many rely heavily on their own opinions and emotions to make their case and prove their arguments. This is a huge mistake.

Any judge, including a small claims filing judge, wants to see hard evidence – paperwork, photographs, statements from witnesses – that proves you are telling the truth. The judge is not interested in what you believe happened, how it made you feel, or why you think the defendant did it. If you don’t show up with the proper evidence to back up the statements you’re making, you will most likely lose the case – it’s really that simple.

Small claims filing doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Take the process seriously and ask questions if you’re unsure what to do – your local county clerk should be an excellent resource for information about how to file and what comes next. Make sure you know what’s expected of you as you move forward through the stages of the case. Most of all, remember that providing complete and accurate information with valid support to show your side is typically enough to carry you through a small claims filing and ensure a just, positive outcome for everyone involved.

Getting Help With your Small Claims Filing

Some states do not allow attorneys to represent individuals in small claims court. However, if it is permitted in your state, having an experienced small claims lawyer represent you in small claims court may increase your chances of winning your case. Even if your state doesn’t allow lawyers in small claims court, you can still get legal advice before going to court on exactly what you can do to better prove your case and to maximize your chances of a successful small claims filing.

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