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Small claims court is part of your municipal or justice court. Most small claims disputes are about money damages under $5,000. But this court also can order someone to do something, such as to return a borrowed bicycle or lawn mower. Although you may consult with a lawyer outside the courtroom, you must argue your own case before a judge. The regular filing fee is $15 or $30 and cases are usually heard within 40 to 70 days after the forms are filed.

FILING A COMPLAINT

If you are the plaintiff -- the person who demands payment or asks for some other kind of settlement of a dispute -- you are the one who begins a small claims action by filing a complaint with the clerk of the court. In the complaint, you must briefly describe why you should win the case and how much money you want to be paid or what other action you want the opposing party to take. At the time of the trial, you will be asked to provide all the facts of the case.

If you are the defendant -- the person being sued -- you will get an order to appear at a small claims hearing. You may also file a Claim of Defendant against the plaintiff. It may be a good idea for you to try to settle the matter before going to court. If both sides agree on a settlement, it is best to put it in writing with both of your signatures and the date. The plaintiff should then file a "request for dismissal."

If you can't settle the case out of court, you must appear at the hearing or request a new court date or a transfer of the case to another court. If you do not take one of these actions, the court may make an order against you.

THE HEARING

At the hearing, both parties will explain their sides of the story to the judge. You can present witnesses and evidence. It is important for you to come to court well prepared and that you talk only about things that are relevant to the case.

After hearing both sides of the story, the judge will make a decision based on the law and on fairness and on common sense. The judge can make the decision at the hearing or choose to make the decision later after going over the evidence or researching a point of law. Generally, the plaintiff and the defendant should get a notice of the judge's decision in the mail within three weeks after the court hearing.

In California, only the defendant in this type of case can appeal the judgment, although, under certain circumstances, either party may ask the court to correct or set aside a judgment.

SMALL CLAIMS LEGAL ADVISORS

Each county is required to have a Small Claims Legal Advisor to give free advice. The kinds of services offered vary from county to county. The court clerk's office can tell you about the services available in your court but is not permitted to give you legal advice. The clerk also can give you information sheets that explain how to fill out the necessary small claims court forms.

In addition, the Department of Consumer Affairs offers an information booklet about small claims court procedures (Department of Consumer Affairs, P.O. Box 310, Sacramento, CA 95802; tel. 916-445-1254).

WHO CAN SUE

To sue or to be sued in small claims court, a person must be at least 18 years old and mentally competent. U.S. citizenship is not required. Minors or the mentally impaired must have a specialized guardian called a guardian ad litem--a guardian just to handle that particular case.

TEMPORARY JUDGES

Because of the large workloads in courts today, temporary judges can help to provide speedy resolution of minor cases, including small claims matters. A temporary judge, sometimes called a Judge Pro Tem, may be appointed by the court to handle such cases if both parties in the dispute agree to allow a temporary judge to hear the matter. Temporary judges are attorneys who are members of the State Bar of California.

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