Small claims court can be an opportunity to empower yourself and receive a fair judgement without breaking the bank with legal fees. However, there are times when taking someone to court just isn’t worth it. Read on for an overview of how this process of settling civil cases can work for you.
Small Claims Basics
The appeal of small claims court is that ordinary people can go through a simple, streamlined legal process without getting costly lawyers involved. Typically, you’ll file the appropriate paperwork and pay a small fee ($30-$75, depending on the state) and then have the chance to present your case.
You’ll have to gather your own evidence and arrange to travel to the courthouse on your appointed day. While you are not required to have a lawyer present, most people choose to have representation. Skipping out on a lawyer to save some cash could cost you in the end.
Be Prepared to Wait
Settling even a simple case in small claims court can be a time-consuming process. Expect to wait around six months from the date you initially file.
You’ll also have to put in the time and effort to collect relevant documents and evidence, in addition to taking hours off work to attend court in person.
For most individuals, small claims court is the last resort–meaning that you’ve tried every other possible avenue to settle the matter in question before filing in court.
For example, if your landlord unreasonably refused to return your security deposit, you should try working things out without the aid of the court first.
Not Every Claim Can Be Covered
Small claims court is typically only used for settling civil disputes where the total dollar figure involved is less than $10,000.
States have different limits, but generally speaking, you can settle relatively minor issues between landlords and tenants or contract workers and clients. Failure to repay a personal loan could also be an issue for small claims court.
However, you can’t get divorced in small claims court or file bankruptcy. Those issues are handled in other courts. You also can’t file a claim against a government agency.
Is It Worthwhile?
Ultimately, even if your case fits into the criteria listed above, only you can decide if taking someone to small claims court is worth the effort.
By the time you take someone to court, it might be about the principal of the thing more than the financial settlement. If you want to spend $600 in lost wages, fees and travel costs to “win” a judgment of $100 against your former roommate, that’s your choice.
The unfortunate reality is that many people who are awarded financial damages never see a penny anyway. The court can order the defendant to pay up, but if they fail to follow through, you’ll have to take them to court all over again.