Before filing a case in small claims court, it's important to decide whether going to court is the best way to solve your problem. Many counties help people resolve disputes informally through their local consumer affairs offices, or through local public or private dispute resolution or mediation programs.
Filing a lawsuit requires time and effort. This includes preparing for the hearing, gathering evidence, meeting with witnesses, and attending the hearing in person.
Neither you nor the other side will be compensated for your time for preparing and going to court, even if you win.
You cannot hire an attorney to represent you during the small claims court trial hearing. However, you can hire a lawyer to help you outside of the courtroom before or after the trial. (The costs of hiring an attorney may be high.)
If you start a small claims case and lose, you may not appeal the decision. This means that, in small claims courts, the person starting the case gives up the right to have a different judge re-hear the case. So if you should lose, that's most likely the end of the case for you.
Even if you win in court, the person who is obligated to pay the judgment may not have the money to pay it, or may simply refuse to pay it. The court does not collect the money for you. Enforcement procedures are available, but these require extra effort and also money on your part. It's possible that you will never collect anything – or if you do collect, it may take years.
Some of the questions you might ask yourself before you file a case include:
Is your dispute about money? Is the amount $10,000 or less?
Have you tried to contact the other side to settle the dispute on an informal basis?
Have you written a “demand letter” to the side person, stating exactly what you want and by when?
Are you within the time limits set by law to file your type of case?
Can you file the case in a court that is not too hard for you to get to?
Do you know the full legal name of the person or business you want to sue and where to find them?
Are you sure that the person or business you want to sue is legally responsible for the problem?
Can you prove your case? Do you have the evidence you need to convince a judge you are in the right about your claim?
Do you have the skills to make a convincing courtroom presentation?
If you win, is the person or business able to pay the amount of money you believe is owed to you when you need it?
If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” you may be better off seeking other ways to solve your problem.
If the answer to all of these questions is “yes” and you decide to file a small claims court case, please read the section called During a Court Case.