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Getting justice in a small-claims court

The court then will schedule a trial date and instruct the local sheriff to notify the defendant of the suit against them. Some states allow defendants to file a counterclaim, also capped at a certain amount; in these instances, both suits are usually heard and ruled on at the same time. Small claims cases typically are scheduled for trial quickly, often within 30 to 40 days.

You do not necessarily have to be a U.S. citizen to file a small claims suit but you must be over 18; if you're under 18, a parent, guardian or adult relative or friend may file for you.

In most states, you may sue a company, although a company usually cannot sue you.

What are the most common grievances in small claims court? Typically, they involve auto accidents, landlord-tenant rent deposit disputes, property damage, unpaid promissory notes, broken contracts and unfinished or unsatisfactory workmanship.

Your day in court
When trial day comes, you may present witnesses, photos, bills and other documents relating to your suit. These hearings are usually less formal than other court proceedings; judges typically ask questions of both sides and may or may not allow cross-examination. The judge will usually reach a decision at the end of the hearing. Many jurisdictions do not allow lawyers on either side. If counsel is retained, some jurisdictions will move the trial from small claims to county court.

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Whichever side loses may appeal, but they must file within a certain period, often 10 days. If the plaintiff is not awarded the full amount of their claim, they can usually appeal that, as well.

But appeals to small claims rulings are rare because typically you will be required to pay another, often larger court fee, purchase a transcript of your trial and hire legal counsel in order to appeal to a higher court.

Despite the popularity of televised small claims court, the real thing has cooled off during the past decade, according to Matt McConville, court administrator for Denver County Court.

"The '90s were such a period of prosperity that filings were down, both on civil cases and small claims cases, even in light of small claims limits going up. I think you'd see the same thing in any court in the country," he says.

The hard part: collecting
Admittedly, the big hole in the small claims process continues to be collection.

If the defendant doesn't appear for trial, the judge will likely rule in your favor for the full amount of your claim. Great news, right?

Wrong. Many judges will require a defendant who is present in court to answer a post-trial interrogatory that lists things like their bank accounts, place of employment and financial assets. That information will prove critical as you pursue collection, typically by garnishment of the defendant's bank account or wages.

McConville maintains that most small claims plaintiffs receive payment. But if a defendant won't, or can't, pay up, it can be a long and frustrating road ahead.

"It's very difficult to collect a judgment in some cases. Some people are judgment-proof; that is, they have no assets. If they don't divulge in interrogatory, the next step is they would be served with process, meaning that if they don't comply, they will be held in contempt of court, and those are difficult, as well," he says.

Try mediation first
A better option, in those jurisdictions that offer it, is mediation. Instead of going directly to trial, you and the other party sit down with a mediator, often a volunteer lawyer, and hash out a compromise, which the small claims judge then issues as an order of the court.

"Some people say if you go to trial there really are two losers; you don't get all you want and the other guy doesn't get anything. You can come out saying, gosh, that really wasn't so great," McConville says. "But in mediation, you settle your differences. We have seen a great increase in the number of small claims cases that are mediated."

Despite its drawbacks, if your beef is relatively minor and the offending party won't budge, McConville says you still can't beat small claims court.

"It still works very well. I think small claims is still a very good service to the public because they don't need an attorney and the rules of evidence are very relaxed. You plunk down your $30 or $35 and you get your trial in a month to six weeks. You don't find that anywhere else."

-- Posted: Jan. 23, 2004
Read more stories by Jay  MacDonald
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See Also
Dr. Don: staking your claim in small claims court
Alternatives to divorce court
Welcome to our class action lawsuit
Personal finance advice glossary
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