What Is Small Claims Court?
Small claims courts are specifically designed to give people access to the courts without the need to hire an attorney. Court forms are standardized and reasonably simple to complete. In many places, the court clerk can offer guidance (but not legal advice) on how to fill out the forms.
Cases are heard informally before a judge, not a jury. Although the rules are simplified you will still have to prove your case as you would in any other court. This means you will need to be prepared to present evidence such as receipts, documents, and/or witness statements.
What Are “Small Claims?”
State law determines the limit for a “small” amount of money. This amount varies from state to state, but most states have limits between $2500 and $15000. For example, the small claims limit in Missouri is $5000, while in Illinois, it’s $10,000.
What If You Are Owed More Than The Small Claims Limits?
Amounts in excess of the small claims court limits cannot be filed or awarded in small claims court. If you choose to file your case in small claims anyway, you cannot ask for more than the small claims limit and the court cannot award anything in excess of the limit.
What Type Of Claim Is Appropriate For Small Claims Court?
Traditionally, small claims courts have been limited to straightforward cases that only involve a claim for money. Typical situations can include:
- Getting back your security deposit
- Personal injury claims with limited injuries and property damage
- Being reimbursed for broken or damaged property
- Breach of a verbal or written contract
What About Having Goods Or Property Returned?
Whether a small claims court can handle property matters depends on your jurisdiction. In Missouri, small claims are limited to monetary claims. By contrast, Illinois allows small claims court to be used for things like evictions, or the repossession of motor vehicles, if the amount in question does not exceed the small claims limits.
Do You Need A Lawyer?
Ideally, no, you will not need a lawyer. In fact, in some places, lawyers are not allowed to file suit in small claims court.
Having said that, there are times where you may want to consult a lawyer about your case:
- If you are unsure how much money you are owed
- If you reasonably believe your case may exceed the small claims limit
- If your case is complicated
- If the court forms seem too confusing
- If you are being sued as a defendant in small claims
More information on small claims court in Missouri process can be found here.
More information on small claims court in Illinois can be found here.