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What is ‘Small Claims Court’?

What is ‘Small Claims Court’?

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Date Modified: September 9, 2023

Small claims court is a legal venue where individuals can resolve disputes over small amounts of money, typically under $10,000. In California, small claims court is designed to be a quick, inexpensive, and informal process where people can represent themselves without the need for a lawyer. The court hears cases related to things like property damage, unpaid bills, and breach of contract. The parties present their case to a judge, who makes a decision based on the evidence presented. Small claims court can be a useful tool for individuals seeking a resolution to a dispute without the cost and complexity of traditional court proceedings.

  • Video Transcript - What is ‘Small Claims Court’?

    Video Transcript - What is ‘Small Claims Court’?

    "0:00 What is small claims court? Small claims
    0:04 court is a court wherein the
    0:06 jurisdictional value of the case is
    0:08 usually below seven thousand dollars in
    0:10 California and I believe five thousand
    0:12 in most other jurisdictions it simply
    0:15 means if a civil plaintiff has been
    0:18 wronged and the amount of money is not
    0:21 that significant the court will disallow
    0:24 the defendant from having an attorney
    0:26 and then the plaintiff you the civil
    0:30 plaintiff can then go and sue him the
    0:33 downsides are that the jurisdictional
    0:35 amounts are low neither party is
    0:37 entitled to an attorney and the case
    0:39 will be decided by a judge without a
    0:41 jury all these things are consented to
    0:44 by filing the small claims case. [Music]"

With over 100 million cases filed yearly in state trial courts and 400,000 in federal trial courts, the United States legal system is constantly grinding work to resolve disputes. To assist with more minor claims or claims worth low value, the small claims court step in and lift the case burden of other courts.

What Is ‘Small Claims Court’ In Detail?

A small claims court is a legal institution that helps resolve small claims quickly and inexpensively. Rules are simpler, and the hearings are informal for small claims, unlike civil claims, where court rules are more complex and formal rules of evidence apply.

Few states do not allow attorneys to represent their clients inside these special courts. The person filing the claim is the plaintiff, and the one against whom the claim is brought is the defendant. You don’t have to be a United States citizen to file or defend a claim in these courts.

There are other dispute-resolving methods, including mediation, and some counties can even help resolve a dispute through their consumer affairs offices. It is best to explore your options before you decide to approach a small claims court.

What Value of Claims Can You File in Small Claims Court?

Generally, small claims court resolves claims that are less than $10,000 in value, but corporations, government entities, and other legal entities cannot file more than $5,000 in value cases.

How Many Claims Can You File in Small Claims Court?

In a calendar year, an individual or a legal entity in a state cannot file more than two claims in small claims court worth more than $2,500.

For example, if you filed a claim for $3,000 in April 2021 and another small claim for $4,000 in May 2021, you may not be able to file any more claims ($2,500 or more in value) until March 2022.

However, you can file below $2,500 claims as often as possible. These limitations do not apply to public entities such as school districts, community college districts, and others, and they can bring more than two claims over $2,500 in a calendar year.

Examples of Disputes Resolved in Small Claims Court

The following are some examples of disputes resolved in small claims court:

  • Someone hits your car and refuses to pay for repair.
  • Your tenant damages your apartment exceeding the costs of their security deposit.
  • You became a victim of fraud in a car purchase, and now you wish to cancel the purchase and get your money back.
  • Your friend borrowed money from you but now refuses to pay it back.
  • You purchased a new TV from the store, and it won’t work, and the store is refusing to take the TV back or repair it.
  • You paid your landlord a security deposit at the start of the tenancy agreement, but now you’re leaving, and they won’t return the security deposit.

Filing a Small Claim

To file suit in the small claims court, you must fill out a Statement of Claim and Notice form, which you can take from the small claims clerk in your district.

The defendant must provide an answer to the notice or risk a default judgment against themselves.

What Is the Filing Fee for Claims in Small Claims Court?

The filing fees depend on the value of your small claims case.

Below is the breakdown of filing fees according to the value of the claims:

  • $1,500 or less: $30
  • More than $1,500 but less than or equal to $5,000: $50
  • More than $5000: $75
  • More than 12 claims in a calendar year: $100 for subsequent claims.

Individuals who file more than 12 claims in a calendar year may only recover the normal court costs rather than the $100 they paid if they win the case.

For example, if a multiple-filer files a $1,300 small claims case in small claims court and wins, they will receive the claim and $30 filing fees (fees for cases worth $1,500 or less) and not the $100 they paid.

Small claims court can only award monetary judgment, meaning you cannot ask the court to order the defendant to return your vehicle or lawnmower, and so on.

Once a small claims court gives its verdict on the case, the sheriff’s department has the authority to enforce it, and they may or may not need to get additional court orders for enforcement.

When Will the Court Hear My Case?

Most small claims cases are often heard within 30 to 40 days of filing a claim in small claims court, but they can also be scheduled within 20 to 70 days. Most hearings are often done during the weekdays; however, some small claims courts are open on Saturdays too.

If the plaintiff does not show up, but the defendant appears, the judge might dismiss the case, and the plaintiff may not be able to refile the same case. If the plaintiff shows up and the defendant does not, the court may enter a default judgment against the defendant.

How Can a Plaintiff Notify the Defendant?

The plaintiff must send the defendant a copy of their claim and file an SC-104 Proof of Service form with the court to let them know that the defendant was served. In cases where the plaintiff approaches a sheriff, the sheriff may be able to file the necessary form with the court.

What Happens After the Court Decides the Case?

When a court decides the case, the plaintiff and the defendant will receive a copy of the judgment, and the plaintiff has the right to collect the judgment from the defendant.

Small claims court will not help collect the money owed, and if the defendant fails to uphold the court’s verdict, the plaintiff may ask the sheriff to collect the judgment on their behalf from the other party.

Can I Appeal a Small Claims Case?

You may appeal the case if you’re unhappy with the judgment.

The process includes the following:

  • You can tell the judge you wish to appeal after the verdict or file a notice of appeal within 20 days of the decision.
  • Pay the docket fee within 20 days following the verdict.

If the magistrate or the district associate judge decided on the original case, the district court judge would decide the appeal. However, if you’re not happy with the district court judge’s decision, you may be able to ask the Supreme Court to review the case.

What Options Does a Defendant Have?

The defendant may settle the case with the plaintiff and notify the court of the settlement. A defendant can also counterclaim by filing their own claim against the plaintiff with the clerk two days before the hearing, and the plaintiff does not need to answer the defendant’s claim.

Schedule a Free Consultation with Ehline Law When Small Claims Aren’t an Option

If you’re injured in an accident and unsure which court to file a claim, contact us at (833) LETS-SUE for a free consultation on your case.


Michael Ehline is an inactive U.S. Marine and world-famous legal historian. Michael helped draft the Cruise Ship Safety Act and has won some of U.S. history’s largest motorcycle accident settlements. Together with his legal team, Michael and the Ehline Law Firm collect damages on behalf of clients.
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