With the decline in the economy and the rising cost of attorney's fees, many people are choosing to represent themselves and using the small claims court system in their state rather than going through the more expensive and lengthier processes necessary for the higher courts.
Small claims court is a great system for those persons choosing to represent themselves (known as pro se or pro per in legal terms). The rules are usually more relaxed, the process is less formal, and the costs are much lower.
However, there are some drawbacks to the small claims court system which a person who is thinking of using this forum should be aware.
First, the name "Small Claims Court" is appropriate. While many of the upper courts have no upper limit on the amount that can be sought, the small claims courts do. The amount varies from state to state, but at the time of this writing it can be as low as $3500 and as high as $25,000, depending on the state. This means that many cases simply do not fit in this court. Some people try to get around this limitation by seeking less than the full amount of their damages so as to fit under the limit. Unfortunately, there is case law in most states which prohibit this behavior and render any judgment acquired by using this trickery "void" as the court did not have jurisdiction to hear the case in the first place. What that can mean is by the time the case is heard, appealed, and an opinion rendered in a Court of Appeals, the time limit (statute of limitations) may have passed which means the case cannot be re-filed and the person has lost the ability to recover their damages.
Next, while the small claims courts are less formal they are still courts. Many of the judges in these courts are even more impressed with their power and their decisions can be arbitrary and make no sense. In addition, many of the judges are not required to be lawyers and, in fact, have little to no training.
Further, if you are conscientious and read the posts here on LessonsInLaw.com or use our Guerrilla Guides to the Law, you may find yourself being better versed on the law than the Small Claims Court judge, in which case the situation must be handled carefully so they do not feel threatened by your knowledge.
Finally, many small claims courts do not allow for jury trials which, in my opinion, is the great equalizer in lawsuits. While no one truly knows what a jury is going to do ahead of time, it has been my experience that they generally do the right thing based on the information they have been provided. In all of the trials I have seen there is only one where I felt the jury made a huge mistake. In all the rest there was a logical explanation for their decision.
However, even with its flaws the small claims court system works remarkably well in most cases. The time to get a case to trial is often as short as a month or two, the costs are miniscule compared to a regular case, and the judgment is often fair. In addition, the reduced time for the process to work allows all sides of the case to put the matter behind them with a solid resolution.
Look for our new book, The Guerilla Guide to Small Claims Court, to be available in the coming weeks. If you are interested in purchasing a copy and want a notification when it is released, then drop us an email and we'll be glad to let you know as soon as it is available.