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Small Claims Court: A Beginner’s Guide

This post was co-authored by Barbara Bavis and Robert Brammer, Legal Reference Specialists.

At sometime you may find yourself in a dispute that does not seem worth pursuing because the amount in controversy is small. After all, you do not want to spend five thousand dollars on an attorney for a claim that, assuming you are even successful, is only worth five hundred dollars. However, there is one option that may be of help in a situation like this–small claims court.

Small claims court can be a cost-effective means of resolving a civil dispute where the amount in controversy is under a certain dollar amount (as specified in the rules of court). Small claims cases do not require, and  in some jurisdictions may not even allow, representation of parties by attorneys. This eliminates a large expense associated with litigation, making it possible to pursue civil claims for lesser amounts. In small claims court, you and the defendant present your arguments and evidence to the judge, and the judge translates your argument into a legal claim and rules accordingly.

Eligible Claims and Procedure

The first issue you will have to determine is whether your civil claim is eligible for small claims court. Each jurisdiction varies, so you need to look at the rules of court for your jurisdiction to ensure that your claim is under the limit set for your small claims court.  To find your state’s court rules online, we suggest using the Guide to Law Online, which is curated by the Law Library of Congress–simply look under the “Judicial” section for each state.

INTERIOR, FIRST FLOOR, GENERAL VIEW OF SMALLER COURTROOM - Orange County Courthouse, Second & Grand Streets, Newburgh, Orange County, NY

“INTERIOR, FIRST FLOOR, GENERAL VIEW OF SMALLER COURTROOM – Orange County Courthouse, Second & Grand Streets, Newburgh, Orange County, NY” courtesy of the Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Small Claims Court Books

The Law Library of Congress has several books in its collection geared toward helping pro se litigants with their small claims, including:

To find these resources in a library near you, we suggest utilizing the WorldCat catalog, or the online catalog for your local public library system.

Self-Help Centers and Other Research Assistance

Some jurisdictions have self-help centers, which are often associated with the clerk of court. These centers may be able to provide you with jurisdiction specific forms, but usually cannot provide you with legal advice.

One way in which to find these self-help centers is to contact your state’s library (or law library), and ask if they have additional information about resources available in your area.  Additionally, you might want to visit the website of the nonprofit legal services provider(s) in your state to see if it has a list of the state’s self-help centers, or even if it provides information about the small claims court procedure in your state.

Fees

Be sure to take into account the cost of court administrative fees, such as filing fees, when filing a claim. You will typically find a schedule of these fees on a court website or on the website for your clerk of court.

We hope you enjoyed this Beginner’s Guide. Do you have a question about small claims? Send us a question through our Ask A Librarian service.

One Comment

  1. Robert
    December 31, 2013 at 2:40 pm

    For our readers who are interested in copyright small claims issues, we suggest reviewing the United States Copyright Office’s “Remedies for Small Claims” website, particularly its in-depth report titled “Copyright Small Claims: A Report of the Register of Copyrights” (Sept. 2013).

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