Small Claims Court
There's one legal avenue available to you in certain disputes that's specifically designed to allow you to represent yourself — small claims court. Generally limited to small monetary disputes, small claims court is often used by businesses and individuals to help collect debts that are owing to them or to sort out contractual disputes. Small claims courts are governed by state and provincial law, so monetary limits and legal areas differ depending on where you live. In the United States, small claims procedures are also available at the federal level in Tax Court.
Small claims court limits vary from $3,000 to $25,000 in the United States, depending on your state, and from $5,000 to $25,000 in Canada, depending on your province. If your claim exceeds the limit, you may still be able to use small claims court, but you'll need to waive your right to any amount that's over the limit.
The main advantage to small claims court is that it simplifies the court procedures so that laypeople can handle the process without requiring the services of a lawyer. Therefore, it reduces potential legal costs significantly. And if you win your case (proving that your client owes you the money, for example), you can ask for the court's help to enforce the judgment against your client.
Before Small Claims Court
First, check that the statute of limitations hasn't run out on the issue that you're trying to resolve. Time periods vary, but generally they give you a reasonable period in which to discover the problem, attempt to solve it, and then apply to the court for assistance.
You've very likely attempted to collect the debt or sort out the contract situation several times already. But if you're considering small claims court, you need to do it one more time, in writing. If you're trying to collect a debt, for example, you'll send the debtor, by certified mail, a request to pay the money and a time limit for payment, letting him know that it's your final request for payment. You also need to say that if you don't receive the money by your deadline, you'll take the debtor to court.
Check with local business associations or court systems to see if mediation or arbitration might be available for you to use instead of going to court. These conflict resolution mechanisms are actually required before you go to court in some jurisdictions, and they can be very effective at coming up with creative solutions to issues.
Of course, you need to keep copies of all correspondence regarding the matter — if you speak to the other party on the phone, for example, note the time and date of the call, and what you spoke about. Print out copies of emails that you've sent or received. You're looking to support your side of the case as strongly as possible.
Before you make the final decision to file your suit, ensure that you're clear on your aims and on what the court can achieve for you. If, for example, a client owes you a large chunk of money, but they've just declared bankruptcy and have few assets, you're going to have trouble collecting the money even if you win your suit. Think about whether the suit is worth the time and trouble it's going to take.
Filing in Small Claims Court
Once your deadline has passed, you can go ahead and file your small claims lawsuit. You usually need to do this in the small claims court that's closest to where the other party lives or does business.
If the other party lives out of state or province or a significant distance away, then you should rethink small claims court due to the travel costs involved. If the money involved is worth the travel time and expense, go ahead — otherwise, consider writing it off as a bad debt instead.
The local county clerk's office can advise you on which paperwork you need and how to go about filing it. There's usually a small fee involved in filing, so be prepared. Also ask what actions you need to take next: You'll likely have to notify the other party (the defendant) by officially “serving” him.
If you'll need to call witnesses to court, make sure that you understand the time frames and methods needed to give them sufficient notice to appear. Again, your county clerk can give you the right advice.
Your Day in Court
It's essential that you prepare adequately for your time in front of the small claims court judge. Have all of the paperwork that backs up your case organized and available. Copies of letters, contracts, independent assessments of damages in the case of a business vehicle accident, eyewitness statements — bring along whatever will help the judge decide that your story is the more credible one.
In addition to the money you're owed or the amount that you're claiming in a contractual dispute, you can also request that the court award costs to cover your expenses, such as fees that you've paid to file the court case, travel expenses, or lost work time. Just ensure that you keep the expenses reasonable and under the monetary limit.
It also helps to rehearse what you're going to say, but keep in mind that small claims court judges understand that you're not a lawyer. They'll often help you out if you're having trouble with the procedure. Just try to be as clear and concise as possible: Remember that courts are incredibly busy places, and the judges don't want or need to hear long explanations. Keep it short and simple.
If you win your case, you'll then have a judgment that you can enforce. Check with the county clerk to find out what avenues are available to you to help you collect the amount awarded. Often, you can return to court to ask for help, which might take the form of placing a lien against the other party's property or garnishing their wages.
If you lose, check with the clerk to find out what the appeal process is and how soon you need to file the appeal. Then sit back and decide whether it's really worth spending additional time and money on an appeal. Keep in mind that you'll likely need to prove that the judge made a legal mistake — simply disagreeing with the decision isn't going to be enough.