Definition of small-claims court
Small-claims courts have limited jurisdiction to hear civil cases between private litigants. Courts authorized to try small claims may also have other judicial functions, and the name by which such a court is known varies by jurisdiction; it may be known as a county or magistrate's court. These courts can be found in Australia, Canada, England and Wales, Ireland, Israel, New Zealand, Scotland, South Africa, Hong Kong, and the United States.
Purpose and operation
The business of small-claims courts typically encompasses small private disputes in which large amounts of money are not at stake, usually a maximum of $15,000 in most US states. The routine collection of small debts forms a large portion of the cases brought to small-claims courts, as well as evictions and other disputes between landlords and tenants, unless the jurisdiction is already covered by a tenancy board.
A small-claims court will generally have a maximum monetary limit to the amount of judgments it can award, often in the thousands of dollars/pounds. By suing in a small-claims court, the plaintiff typically waives any right to claim more than the court can award. The plaintiff may or may not be allowed to reduce a claim to fit the requirements of this venue. "Court shopping", where a plaintiff seeks to reduce the amount of damages claimed in order to fit a trial into a court that would otherwise not have jurisdiction, is strictly forbidden in some states. For example, if a plaintiff asserts damages of $30,000 in hopes of winning an award of $25,000 in small-claims court, the court will dismiss the case because the court does not have jurisdiction to hear cases in which the asserted damages exceed the court's maximum amount. Thus, even if the plaintiff is willing to accept less than the full amount, the case cannot be brought to small-claims court. To bring the case to small-claims court, the plaintiff must prove that the actual damages were within the court's jurisdiction. In some jurisdictions, a party who loses in a small-claims court is entitled to a trial de novo in a court of more general jurisdiction and with more formal procedures.
The rules of civil procedure, and sometimes of evidence, are typically altered and simplified in order to make the procedures economical: one guiding principle usually operating in these courts is that individuals ought to be able to conduct their own cases and represent themselves without recourse to a lawyer. Even though rules are relaxed, they still apply to some degree. In some jurisdictions, corporations must still be represented by a lawyer in small-claims court. Expensive court procedures such as interrogatories and depositions are usually not allowed in small-claims court, and practically all matters filed in small-claims court are set for trial. Under some court rules, should the defendant not show up at trial and not have requested postponement, a default judgment may be entered in favor of the plaintiff.
Trial by jury is seldom or never conducted in small-claims courts; it is typically excluded by the statute establishing the court. (The state of Washington is one exception, allowing either party to demand a jury trial.) Similarly, equitable remedies such as injunctions, including protective orders, are seldom available from small-claims courts.
Separate family courts may exist to hear simple cases in family law. For reasons having more to do with history than with the sort of case typically heard by a small-claims court, most US states do not allow domestic relations disputes to be heard in small-claims court.
Winning in small-claims court does not automatically ensure payment in recompense of a plaintiff's damages. This may be relatively easy, in the case of a dispute against an insured party, or extremely difficult, in the case of an uncooperative, transient, or indigent defendant. The judgment may be collected through wage garnishment and liens.
Most courts encourage parties with disputes to seek alternative dispute resolution, if possible, before filing suit. For example, the Superior Court of Santa Clara provides guidelines for resolving disputes out of court. Both parties can agree on arbitration by a third party to settle their dispute outside of court, though while small-claims court judgments can still be appealed, arbitration awards cannot.
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