By: Benjamin J. Freeman, Attorney—
As any attorney will tell you, litigation can be very expensive. A lawsuit can take years to litigate through trial. Most legal disputes end in a settlement well before seeing the inside of a courtroom because the financial pressures of litigation often force the parties to the negotiating table. When both sides have much to lose, protracted litigation may not make much sense. But what do you do when your claim isn’t worth big money or you can’t afford an attorney to press your claim?
You can go to Small Claims Court.
Small Claims Court is a type of legal system within the existing court system set up for unrepresented citizens to present their own legal cases in an informal manner. The parties in a small claims case do not need to hire an attorney. A plaintiff in a small claims case can recover a maximum of only $6,000.00 per case. The plaintiff initiates a small claims case by filing a claim with the Clerk of the court. The claim is a simple form stating the basis for the plaintiff’s case such as the amount of money that the plaintiff claims the defendant owes or the property that the plaintiff claims must be returned. The Clerk will send a Summons to the defendant along with a copy of the claim notifying the defendant of the court date.
Prior to the day of the court hearing, the parties are free to come to an agreement to settle the dispute. If the parties do not reach an agreement, the Judge will conduct a hearing. The hearing process is designed to be informal. The Judge will allow the plaintiff to explain the reasons and facts behind the claim. The plaintiff will also be permitted to present evidence and question any witnesses that may be available. The defendant will also be permitted to present evidence and witnesses. Once each said has presented their case, the Judge may ask some additional questions of the parties or their witnesses.
Upon completion of the hearing, the Judge will make a ruling as to the underlying issue. If the Judge finds in favor of the plaintiff, the Judge will enter a Judgment in favor of the plaintiff. A Judgment is an order of the Court stating that the defendant owes the plaintiff a specific amount of money. A judgment earns interest at a rate set by statute until it is paid in full. A Judge can only order a defendant to pay the plaintiff’s attorney fees in very rare circumstances such as in accordance with a prior signed agreement. The Judge may also order the defendant to return any property belonging to the plaintiff, or vacate housing owned by the plaintiff, or to do some other thing requested by the plaintiff. If the Judge finds in favor of the defendant, the Judge will dismiss the case.
The small claims process is important because it allows plaintiffs to recover small judgments much faster than the normal litigation process and at much less expense. Small claims courts are often used for the collection of small debts such as credit card debts, medical debts, evictions and other disputes. Unlike a criminal proceeding, a defendant won’t normally be issued a warrant if he or she fails to appear for a hearing. However, the court will conduct the hearing in the defendant’s absence and the plaintiff will receive a default judgment. If you have received a summons for a small claims case and cannot appear, you should contact the court to reschedule the hearing date.
Small claims courts are designed for use by the average citizen but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take them seriously. The State of Indiana has published a manual for educational purposes for those involved in the small claims process. You can find that here. While not required, if you find yourself needing an attorney for your small claims case, Beasley and Gilkison is here to help. Our attorneys are experienced in both the plaintiff and defendant side of the small claims process.
About the author: Benjamin J. Freeman is a graduate of Jay County High School, Ohio Northern University, and the University of Dayton School of Law.