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Small Claims Court

Updated on May 8, 2013

Small Claims Court - Simple Justice


Small Claims Don't Have to be Ignored

This article begins with a basic proposition: justice denied is a bad thing. If you consider the very question, what is justice, you have to conclude that it is something that society demands. Even if you believe that you should just let wrongs be forgotten, they seldom are. If you are genuinely wronged it will stay with you a long time. The absence of justice is like a "disturbance in the force." Something is just wrong. Let's say you have been cheated out of $900. You purchased an item, paid your money and brought it home. The item didn't work, and the merchant refused to give you your money back or to replace it. Any lawyer has stories about people who come into their office with a situation like this, and no lawyer is happy about it. You want to sue to get your money back. The lawyer would like to help you but has bad news: his or her legal fees are likely to be more than your claim. Note that lawyers have to charge a minimum amount for a case just to cover their overhead. Fortunately, you're not at a dead end, because you can bring your case by yourself in small claims court, and any good lawyer will explain this to you. Whether you have suffered a tort (a civil wrong) or someone has breached a contract with you, you can get a chance to have justice done in small claims court.

In all states there is a some judicial institution that can best be described as a small claims court. This is a great American tradition, one that delivers justice every day. These are real courts involving real controversies, although no large disputes. Some courts of limited jurisdiction will have a specific day when these cases are heard. Some states have small claims courts where that is the court’s only function. Designed so that the services of an attorney are not needed, the job of small claims courts comes with its name - small claims. There is a limited amount of money that can be recovered, usually $5,000. The necessary documents are not complicated, the procedures and rules of evidence are not as strict as in a regular court, and decisions are often rendered on the spot. All small claims courts provide plainly written instructions about how to bring your claim and they're usually found online. One of the unique features of small claims courts is that the court employees are trained to assist you in bringing your claim and are ready to answer any question that you have. Small claims courts enable small injustices to be made right.

Justice in the Living Room - Judge Judy and the Other TV Jurists

If you want to get an idea of what a small claims case looks like you can turn to the television judge shows on any afternoon. While entertaining, these shows do give you a good idea of what a privately litigated case looks like. The actual cases are not before a real small claims court, although it looks that way. What you are witnessing is an arbitration, where the parties have signed a binding contract to have a Judge Judy decide their case. So you are watching a real dispute. Judge Judy Sheindlin is quite an arbitrator. She earns over $45 million a year.


Often, small claims courts begin with the services of an arbitrator. This is not a privately hired arbitrator where the parties agree on both the arbitrator and also to be bound by the decision. In front of a small claims court this person is a court appointed arbitrator. Often a retired lawyer, the arbitrator will hear your claim before it goes to the regular court. This is often done on the same day. An arbitrator will first try to act as a mediator to see if there can be a settlement between you and the person you're bringing the claim against. If you can't reach an agreement, the arbitrator will then hear your claim and make a decision. If you're not happy with the decision you have a right to go to trial before a judge.

If You're Successful

So the judge found in you favor and rendered a formal judgment. Great, now what? A judgment doesn't enforce itself; you have to takes steps to see that it gets paid. You are now a "judgment creditor," and the losing party is a "judgment debtor." There are many ways to enforce a money judgment. Here are the primary ways to do it.

· Demand payment before you "file" the judgment with the county clerk. If you're dealing with a merchant, or anybody for that matter, who is concerned about their credit, this often works. Once the judgment is filed it is a matter of public record and it will show up on credit reports.

· Levy (file a lien) against the assets of the judgment debtor. The debtor cannot sell or otherwise dispose of an asset that has a lien against it until he satisfies the lien. In most states a judgment creditor is allowed to demand a list of assets from the judgment debtor. If it's real estate, you job is a bit simpler. You can check the address of the property in the county clerk's office. If it's in the debtor's name, you just file the lien and make sure it's recorded. You won't collect until the property is sold, but you know that you have a payday coming someday. You can bring a lawsuit to compel the sale of the property but that goes way beyond the process of a small claims court. Again, the people who work for small claims courts will assist you.

· Garnish wages. If the judgment debtor has an income stream from a salary you can get the necessary forms to be paid your debt from his paycheck.

Small claims courts are important American institutions. For someone who has suffered a wrong, the small claims court is there to make sure that you have your day in court, no matter how small the case.

Copyright ©2012 by Russell F. Moran

The writer of this article is the author of the book Justice in America: How it Works - How it Fails.


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      Candice Harding 3 years ago

      Small claims court is so interesting. Sure, there are plenty of frivolous cases filed, but they also serve an important role in the American justice system. However, I think lots of these small claims cases would benefit hugely from a single consultation with a lawyer.

      Candice Harding

    • alocsin profile image

      alocsin 4 years ago from Orange County, CA

      I think small claims court is an excellent compromise if you feel you've been wrong but a lawyer is just too impractical for the small amount. It makes me feel nervous to appear in court -- but then, the other guy is also laboring under the same disadvantage, so that evens the playing field. Voting this Up and Interesting.

    • rfmoran profile image

      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks Susette. I had a similar experience with a HOA towing a tenant's car. They were nice enough to settle. In re the mocking judge. Judges who don't respect both litigants and lawyers should be removed from the bench.

    • watergeek profile image

      watergeek 4 years ago

      This brings up memories, rfmoran. I once took a HOA to small claims court for illegally towing my car. The judge mocked me in court, thinking I was just trying to get away with it but . . . I won my case. The photographs I'd taken proved me right.

      It was a very interesting experience. Small claims court is a much needed and supportive part of our economic system. Thanks for writing this.