Understanding Small Claims Court Procedures

courtroom showing the setting for small claims court proceduresA small claims court provides an opportunity to settle legal and financial disputes with little or no cost to either party. A judge or magistrate will hear the case, weigh the evidence and make a judgement for or against the plaintiff. A jury is not used in a small claims court. In this Low Cost Legal guide to understanding small claims court procedures, key topics will be covered that will be of interest for both plaintiffs and defendants including:

  • Filing in small claims court
  • Finding the small claims form for your local court and filling it out
  • Small claims court fees
  • Using a small claims court lawyer
  • Small claims court mediation
  • Legal self-help tips
  • Collecting judgments and fees

Small Claims Court in your State

The rules for filing in small claims court differ in several ways from state to state. Make sure you understand your state and county small claims court procedures before filing your case. If you are not sure of what to do, contact a lawyer for a consultation. Many people will talk to their family law attorney for basic help in preparing for or filing a small claims court action.

Small Claims Court Awards

The first difference between states and even some counties is in the top dollar amount for claims. Here are a few examples:

If your accident claim is higher than your state allows for small claims court consider talking to an accident attorney. Many attorneys offer a free consultation and if you’re not sure of your rights you will need to talk to someone.

Small Claims Court Lawyers 

The second difference is whether or not you can use an attorney in a small claims court. In most states, neither plaintiff or defendant is allowed to have a small claims lawyer in court.

In states where attorneys are allowed, discovery may also allowed. When this happens, the small claims court lawyer will need time and the opportunity to look into all the facts of the case. Using an attorney may also include the need of deposing all those involved. This process leads to much higher small claims court fees. The party that loses the case will typically pay all expenses incurred by both sides in settling a small claims case.

Whether or not your state allows representation, there are no laws against either plaintiffs or defendants consulting with a small claims lawyer before going to court. That is always your right.

Local Small Claims Courts

Another difference is that small claims court rules and regulations can differ slightly within a state from county to county. The limit for claims is usually is a statewide limit and should not change, but other small claims court procedures can be different. Make sure you check county and state legal statutes.

Getting Started on Your Small Claims Court Case

You now know that every state and county may have differences in small claims court procedures. Now it is time to find out what you need to do in your county to bring a case or defend yourself in one.

We recommend you doing two things:


It is important to take some time researching the small claims court procedures for your specific county and be better prepared for your day in court. To do this use your favorite search engine and type in your search box “small claims court” plus your county. You will find a wealth of information such as legal self-help pages to assist you in getting ready for your day in court.

You’ll also discover whether or not you can be represented by a small claims court lawyer during the hearing of your case. Other common topics covered on local court websites include:

  • How to file a small claims lawsuit
  • Where to find the small claims form online or in person
  • Filing fees
  • Which court you need to file the case in
  • Common FAQs such as, “Can I use an attorney?”
  • Contact information for the court and court clerk
  • How to serve the defendant with small claims lawsuit paperwork
  • How to arrange for witnesses you want to involve
  • If you win do you get reimbursed for fees?
  • The possibility of an out-of-court settlement
  • Dismissal if the plaintiff doesn’t appear for the case; default judgment if the defendant doesn’t appear
  • How to collect money on a small claims court judgment when the defendant is not cooperative
  • Garnishment forms


It is important to use the free consultation that is offered by some attorneys. Just pick up the phone and ask questions, you will be surprised at what you can learn. You can also just talk to your family attorney if you have one that you use. Many feel that they do not need to talk to an attorney but that is really a mistake. Take some time and call someone.

It is also important to know that in many counties, the magistrate or judge hearing the case has the right to refer the case to mediation. At mediation, the two parties will attempt to work out a settlement that is fair to both. The settlement is usually for less than the amount claimed in the lawsuit. It is a way to meet in the middle. If the case goes to the judge or magistrate for a decision, the ruling will typically be an “all or nothing” judgement.

 Collecting Judgments and Fees

Winning a small claims settlement may be the simplest part of your case. At times, it is the collection of the funds that is the biggest challenge. It is important to understand that the court will not collect settlement funds for you. The courts only job after winning your case is to issue you the orders required to force the debtor to pay up. Depending on your state and county, you may have several options to explore to collect your money.

You may be able to place a:

  • Bank Levy
  • Wage Garnishment
  • Lien against real property

Each of the above actions will require you to provide the proper court papers and possibly pay a fee to execute. Since many states and county laws are different, you will need to check your local laws and small claims court procedures.

In conclusion

If someone owes you money and refuses to pay it back, it is your right to take them to small claims court. If you do win a judgement and they take years to pay it back, most courts will allow you to charge interest on the unpaid amount. In California, the court allows 10% interest each year. Understanding small claims court procedures is key to getting started, and the best way to do this is to start today. Contact the clerk of the court in your county.