Arkansas Small Claims Courts
Individuals and certain corporations may file small claims cases in Arkansas if the claim is less than $5,000.00. The small claims process is designed to quickly and efficiently resolve relatively minor disputes. The small claims division follows relaxed rules of civil procedure and simplified court rules. Additionally, parties cannot hire an attorney. Each Arkansas district court has a small claims division.
Small claims allow individuals and some corporations to sue another party for different damages. The person or entity that files a lawsuit is the plaintiff. The person or entity being sued is the defendant. The plaintiffs and defendants in a case are known as parties.
This article provides a brief summary of Arkansas' small claims actions. The following links provide more information on such claims:
- Arkansas Court System Overview: The Arkansas Judiciary briefly overviews the state's court systems.
- Sebastian County Civil and Small Claims: Sebastian County's official website includes general information and forms.
- Small Claims Court Handbook: The Arkansas Bar Association publishes a small claims process handbook. The handbook also includes forms necessary to file a small court claim.
Who Can File a Small Court Claim in Arkansas?
Any individual may file a small claim. A corporation may file a lawsuit in small claims court if they are one of the following:
- Have three or fewer stockholders
- At least 85% of the voting stock is owned by relatives (within third-degree)
- Are a closely held corporation
The following entities cannot file a small claims case in Arkansas:
- Collections agents
- Collections agencies
- Businesses that lend money to others and charge interest on the loaned money
The maximum amount of the claim must be $5,000.00 or less. This amount does not include costs or interest. Therefore, some claims may exceed $5,000.00 in total.
Types of Claims Allowed
Arkansas' small claims courts hear three different types of claims. These claims are as follows:
- Contract disputes
- Recovering personal property
- Personal property damage
Personal injury lawsuits are now allowed in small claims court.
If a party hires an attorney, they must file their claim in the district court's civil division. Therefore, the party cannot hire an attorney and file the claim in small claims court. Attorneys are not allowed to practice in Arkansas' small claims courts.
Time Limits to File a Small Claims Case
Parties must file their small claims case within a certain amount of time. The amount of time depends upon the claim the party wishes to file. If the party does not file within the time state law allows, the statute of limitations will bar the action. The following time limits apply to the particular claims:
- Written contract: Five years after the cause of action accrues
- Oral contract: Three years after the cause of action accrues
- Recovering personal property: Three years after the cause of action accrues
- Damage to personal property: Three years after the cause of action accrues
A cause of action is the legal basis that allows a plaintiff to file a lawsuit. When a cause of action accrues depends on the facts and circumstances of each case. If you have questions regarding if you have a cause of action or when it accrued, consider contacting a civil litigation attorney near you.
Where to File a Small Claims Case
The plaintiff in a small claims case can decide where they file their lawsuit. The plaintiff may always file the case in the district court in the county where the defendant resides. The plaintiff may also file the claim in the county where the damage occurred or the defendant performed (or failed to perform) the contractual obligation.
How to File a Small Claims Case
To initiate a small claims case, the plaintiff must file a summons, a complaint, and an answer form with the small claims division. The summons and complaint forms are available online. The clerk's office at your local courthouse can also provide you with the summons and complaint. The court clerk may answer general questions regarding the documents, but they cannot provide legal advice.
The complaint sets out the plaintiff's legal claim against the defendant. The complaint identifies the names and addresses of the plaintiff and defendant. It must identify the nature of the plaintiff's claim and also state the money damages, if any, the plaintiff believes the defendant owes them.
The summons is the legal document informing the defendant that the plaintiff is suing them. The plaintiff should attach an answer form to the summons and complaint. The defendant will complete the answer form after the plaintiff serves the documents.
The plaintiff may also attach evidence as exhibits to the summons and complaint. Evidence could include, for example, a copy of the contract allegedly breached.
Once the plaintiff has completed the forms, they must bring three copies of the documents to file at the courthouse. The district court clerk will keep one copy, the plaintiff will keep another, and the plaintiff will serve the third copy on the defendant. The court will charge the plaintiff a filing fee, which may vary from court to court.
What Happens After Filing a Small Claims Case?
Once a plaintiff files a small claims case, they must serve the summons and complaint on the defendant. They can utilize the following methods to serve the defendant:
- Private process servers: These are typically private businesses that locate individuals and serve legal documents. Private process servers will typically charge a service fee.
- Sheriff's office: The plaintiff can contact the county sheriff and request they serve the defendant with the summons and complaint. Consider asking your local sheriff's office how much they charge to serve someone. The sheriff may complete an affidavit of service indicating they served the defendant.
- Certified mail: The plaintiff may send the documents to the defendant by certified mail. The mail must indicate restricted delivery, and the plaintiff must request a return receipt. The defendant will receive notice that they received a letter, and they must sign it to receive it.
Answering a Small Claims Case
Once served, a defendant must answer the plaintiff's complaint. The defendant may use the answer form included with the summons and complaint to respond to the lawsuit. The defendant must file their written answer with the court within 30 days of service of the complaint. The defendant must also mail their answer to the plaintiff.
If the defendant chooses to hire an attorney, the court must transfer the small claims case to civil court.
A defendant who has claims against the plaintiff may file a counterclaim. The defendant must serve the counterclaim on the plaintiff using one of the service methods discussed above.
If a defendant does not answer the plaintiff's complaint, the plaintiff may request the court for a default judgment in the plaintiff's favor. If the judge orders a default judgment in the plaintiff's favor, the plaintiff wins the case.
Small Claims Hearings
Once the court receives the defendant's answer, it will place the case on the small claims district court docket. The parties will receive notice of the court hearing and court date.
Before the hearing, the parties can secure witnesses to testify at the hearing. If a witness does not willingly testify, a party may request a subpoena from the court. A subpoena is a court order compelling a witness to testify at trial.
Parties should show up to the hearing ready to present their arguments. The plaintiff will present their case first. This may include presenting evidence to the court and calling witnesses to testify. Each party may cross-examine any witness called by the other party. Once the plaintiff finishes presenting their case, the defendant will present their case.
The judge will determine the prevailing party and the losing party. The judge's decision may come immediately after the hearing, or it may come later.
What Happens After the Hearing?
Following the judge's decision, the parties can enforce a judgment in a few ways. Suppose the plaintiff prevails in their small claims case against the defendant, and the court determines the defendant owes them some amount of money. Assume that the defendant either cannot or does not pay the judgment. The following two methods can assist the plaintiff in enforcing the judgment:
- Writ of garnishment: The plaintiff can request a writ of garnishment from the court. If the court orders such a writ, the defendant's bank account or wages may be garnished. Thus, the judgment will come from their weekly wages or bank accounts.
- Writ of execution: The plaintiff may also request a writ of execution from the court. The court may order the sheriff to seize some of the defendant's property. The sheriff will sell the property at auction, and the proceeds will go to the plaintiff.
If a party disagrees with the judge's decision in their small claims case, they may appeal it. The circuit court hears appeals from small claims cases.
Contact an Attorney
There are several advantages to filing a small court claim. Such cases usually take a shorter length of time than civil cases. Additionally, the simplified rules of civil procedure in a small claims case allow unrepresented parties to argue their case more effectively.
Arkansas law prevents attorneys from representing parties in a small claims case. However, if you have a pending trial date and do not know how to prepare for a small claims court hearing, consider contacting a civil litigation attorney. If a party hires an attorney in an Arkansas small claims case, the case will transfer to civil court. Alternatively, if you lost at small claims court and want to appeal the decision, an attorney can help you prepare for your appeal.
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