Small claims court

From Academic Kids

Small claims courts have been established in many U.S. states. They are courts of limited jurisdiction that hear civil cases between private litigants. Courts authorized to try small claims may also have other judicial functions, and the name by which such a court varies from state to state: it may be known by such names as county court or magistrate's court.

Typically, a small claims court will have a maximum dollar limit to the amount of judgments it can award; these limits vary with state law. By suing in a small claims court, the plaintiff typically waives any right to claim more than the court can award. The plaintiff is allowed to reduce a claim to fit the requirements of this venue.

The rules of civil procedure and sometimes evidence are typically altered and simplified: one guiding principle usually operating in these courts is that individuals ought to be able to conduct their own cases and represent themselves without recourse to a lawyer. In some jurisdictions corporations must still appear, represented by a lawyer, in small claims court. Rules of pleading are likewise simplified; in many states, no answer is required of the defendant, and default judgment is not available for failing to file a written response; instead, all matters filed in small claims court are set for trial. Under some court rules should the defendant not show up at trial and not have requested postponement, a default judgment may be entered in favor of the plaintiff.

Trial by jury is seldom or never conducted in small claims courts; in most states it is excluded by the statute establishing the court. Similarly, equitable remedies such as injunctions, including protective orders, are seldom available from small claims courts in most jurisdictions. For reasons having more to do with history than with the sort of case typically heard by a small claims court, most states do not allow domestic relations disputes to be heard in small claims court. In some jurisdictions, a party who loses in a small claims court is entitled to a trial de novo in a court of more general jurisdiction and with more formal procedures.

The business of small claims courts typically encompasses small private disputes in which large amounts of money are not at stake. The routine collection of small debts forms a large portion of the business of small claims courts; so are evictions and other disputes between landlord and tenant.

Winning in small claims court does not automatically ensure payment in recompense of a plaintiff's damages. This may be relatively easy, in the case of a dispute against an insured party, or extremely difficult in the case of a uncooperative, transient or indigent defendant.

The movement to establish small claims courts typically began in the early 1960s, when Justice of the Peace courts were increasingly being seen as obsolete, and it was felt to be desirable to have such a court to allow people to represent themselves without legal counsel. In New York State the establishment of small claims courts was in response to the findings of Governor Thomas E. Dewey's Tweed Commission on the reorganization of the state judiciary, which issued its findings in 1958. Since then, the movement to establish small claims courts has led to their establishment in most U.S. states. There is no equivalent to a small claims court in the U.S. federal court system, although certain types of civil claims are routinely referred to U.S. magistrates for preliminary handling. Small claims courts also exist in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.


Some jurisdictions offer classes in small claims court procedures. As such courts are open to the public, attendance at a few sessions may be useful to a person involved in a case, whether as plaintiff or defendant.

External sites by State

  • Note that there may be enough similarities between states that useful information may be obtained, but should not be relied upon. Your local Superior Court or similar judicial entity should be consulted for amount limits, filing procedures, and time limits.

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