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.
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.
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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