Many people represent themselves successfully because small claims courts are more accessible and simpler by design. The court proceedings are meant to be a reasonably fast and relatively inexpensive way to resolve disputes.
Written by Attorney Eric Hansen.
Updated October 31, 2021
If you’ve had a dispute with another person or a company and you’ve made several good-faith attempts at a dispute resolution, you may wonder what’s next. You think they’re in the wrong and they owe you money, but they’re refusing to come to a fair agreement. In this case, your next step may be to go to small claims court.
While you can hire an attorney for a small claims court case, you don’t necessarily need to. Sometimes an attorney can help you collect if you win your case. They may also be able to help you prepare your case. But hiring an attorney to litigate your case may be much more expensive than its worth. Also, many small claims courts don’t allow attorneys. This article will discuss the ins and outs of small claims, whether you should hire an attorney, and how to proceed with your small claims case.
The Purpose of Small Claims Court
Small claims court is designed to bring a quick resolution to legal disputes at a relatively low cost to the litigants. You can bring your civil, not criminal, case in front of a local judge to decide on the merits of the case. Small claims court cases must be under a specific dollar amount, which varies state by state. These courts are usually a good choice for people who can’t afford an attorney or who believe their case is simple.
The court process in small claims court is deliberately simplified and streamlined. You don’t have to be a lawyer, understand the rules of evidence, understand the rules of civil procedure, or have sat for the bar exam to win your case. It’s designed so that people of all educational and professional backgrounds can easily understand what to do.
Parties in small claims courts most often represent themselves. Some states don’t allow attorneys to represent the litigants in court at all. In states that do allow attorneys in small claims court, the participants can choose whether or not to hire one. No matter what state you live in, you can hire legal help to prepare your case. That said, an attorney may decline to represent or assist you with this preparation. They have certain eligibility requirements and case priorities that may prevent them from taking on your case.
Typical Case Heard in Small Claims Court
Small claims courts — or conciliation courts as they’re called in certain states — handle a variety of cases. But they only handle civil cases. You can’t bring criminal cases, immigration cases, child protection cases, appellate cases, or federal cases to a small claims court. This court also won’t hear cases where the amount of money in dispute is over the monetary limit set by the state’s supreme court.
Common disputes heard in small claims court include:
Claims for payment
Landlord-tenant disputes (like an eviction or a security deposit issue)
Sales transactions dealing with property, money, or services that weren’t received
Medical expenses for a minor personal injury
Unpaid bills and debts
Disputes over contractor’s or repair person’s work that was supposed to be done
Overcharges for faulty or improper repairs on a car, electronics, or some other form of personal property
Other disputes that are below the claims limit and don’t involve real property or significant personal injury. Those types of cases are heard in the next level of the judiciary, usually called district court, but sometimes referred to as circuit court or superior court.
Small Claims Standard of Proof
To determine who wins the case, the judge will use a standard of proof called substantial justice. This means that all of the evidence you present and the testimony you and others give at the court hearing must show that it is more likely than not you should prevail.
Because the standard of proof is substantial justice, small claims court judges often give more leniency and leeway. They don’t have to strictly follow court procedures and rules of evidence. Their main goal is to come to a just and fair verdict. They don’t want to hold non-lawyers to standards they’re not aware of or not well-versed in or toss the case out on a technicality.
This standard of proof is different from what’s used in criminal cases. You may have heard the phrase “beyond a reasonable doubt,” which is the standard of proof used in criminal cases. It’s much more difficult to prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt in a jury trial. The stakes for these matters are much higher since people’s freedom and lives depend on criminal case decisions.
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Using a Small Claims Attorney vs. DIY
When deciding whether to hire a small claims attorney or represent yourself, you need to carefully weigh the costs and benefits. If you represent yourself, you can typically keep your court costs at $200 or less. That’s the upside. But preparing for your case may take a lot longer, you might need to do a lot of research, and you could even make costly mistakes or forget things that are critical. That’s the downside.
Also, the amount limits for small claims rewards can be quite low. Hiring an attorney to provide full representation is almost never cost-effective. Their attorney fees can be very high, whether they charge a flat fee, a contingency fee, or an hourly rate. Those hours add up quickly and cut into how much money you’ll get if you win the case and are able to collect.
There are several studies that show that people who represent themselves in small claims cases usually do just as well as those who have an attorney helping them. Keep that in mind.
How To Prepare for Your Day in Court
If you don’t hire an attorney and you’re set on going it alone in small claims court, you’ll have to do the following (and more) to prepare for your day in court:
Determine the correct name and legal address of the person or company you want to sue.
Gather evidence and be able to effectively tell your side of the story in a clear, thoughtful, understandable way. This will be put into your statement.
Determine the amount of money you think will right the wrong and make you whole, and be able to explain why this is a logical amount.
Search for and question witnesses whose testimony is helpful to your case and helps prove your points.
Prepare the correct forms and then properly file those forms in the right jurisdiction (usually the county where you live or the county in which the dispute happened).
Make on-time payments in full for court costs and filing fees to the proper entity.
Get a court date on the docket and properly serve the other person with your claim. You can do this in person, by mail, or by a process server depending on court rules. This notifies the other party or parties that you’re suing them.
Wait for a response and answer from the other side. If they don’t provide an answer to your complaint form, you might be able to get a default judgment, which is good for you.
Prepare for any counterclaims.
If you hire an attorney for your small claims case, they will handle all or some of those tasks, depending on the representation agreement. If it’s allowed in your state, they will accompany you on the trial date and argue on your behalf at the trial, presenting evidence and questioning witnesses. If you just hire them to help you prepare for your small claims court case, it’ll cost less than full representation. But it could still cost you hundreds of dollars an hour.
After the Court Judgment
Let’s say that you ultimately win your small claims court case. The judge awards you a money judgment, ruling that the defendant owes you the sum of money that you were asking for in your pleadings. That still doesn’t mean or guarantee that the other party will voluntarily pay you, even with the judgment in place. And the small claims court won’t assist you in collecting the money judgment. You’ll have to do additional work if the other party refuses to pay on the court order.
Additional steps that you may have to take to collect payment from the losing party include:
Levying their bank accounts.
Garnishing their wages.
Seizing the losing party’s personal property that is valued at the same amount as the money judgment.
Searching for other assets the person possesses that may be of value through a skip tracer service or through the local courts.
Sending paperwork to the defendant that asks questions about how they will pay the money judgment, what assets they own, and what their income sources are (exempt and non-exempt income).
Subpoenaing the losing party to testify under oath about their assets so that you can attempt to collect.
Sometimes people hire an attorney for post-judgment debt collection services. This is more affordable than hiring them for the entirety of the case, but it still can be expensive.
You may be able to appeal to a district court or contest the judgment if you lose at small claims court. State law varies and some states don’t allow appeals. If appeals are allowed in your state, you could consider hiring an attorney to assist you. But, again, appellate attorneys are costly and you must balance the costs with the likely small returns. Be thoughtful and carefully consider whether it’s feasible and whether it’s worth it.
The verdict is in: You can hire an attorney for full representation, limited representation, or assistance with preparing your small claims case. Your choice will depend on your state’s laws and your ability to pay. Hiring an attorney for a small claims case can be cost-prohibitive and is often not worth it. Many people represent themselves successfully because small claims courts are more accessible and simpler by design. The court proceedings are meant to be a reasonably fast and relatively inexpensive way to resolve disputes.