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California Small Claims Courts

People and businesses in California can sue other people, companies, and government agencies for up to $10,000.00 in small claims court. Small claims courts hear minor civil claims, such as landlord-tenant disputes and contract breaches.

The small claims court is designed to quickly and efficiently resolve minor legal disputes. These courts follow simplified rules of civil procedure, and the rules of evidence do not apply. Court rules may differ by county, so consider calling your local court before filing a small claims case. An attorney cannot represent parties in small claims cases.

This article provides general information about filing small claims cases in California. The following links provide more information about the process:

  • The Small Claims Court: A Guide to Its Practical Use: The California Department of Consumer Affairs provides a guide to small claims cases. It answers frequently asked questions (FAQs) and describes small claims courts' procedures.
  • California Court Directory: The California Judicial Branch provides a self-help directory of all courts in California. Consider using this tool to find your court's contact information.
  • Small Claims Advisor Directory: The California Judicial Branch provides a county directory of small claims advisors. These advisors offer free advisory services to people or entities in small claims cases.

Who Can File a Small Claims Case in California?

Generally speaking, any adult can file a small claims case in California. Any person over 18 years old may file a small claims case up to $10,000.00. A corporation or business may file a small claims case up to $5,000.00. Exceptions for filing claims against sureties and guarantors exist. Consider contacting a civil litigation attorney or a small claims advisor for more information about filing a small claims case.

What Claims Can Plaintiffs File?

The person or entity filing a lawsuit is a plaintiff. The person or entity against whom the lawsuit is filed is the defendant. The plaintiffs and defendants in a particular case are known as parties.

Plaintiffs can file civil cases in small claims court if the amount in dispute is under the required threshold. Examples of small claims cases include the following:

  • Landlord-tenant disputes (e.g., disputes regarding a security deposit)
  • Breach of contract
  • Property damage

Small claims cases typically resolve within 90 days of the initial complaint, which is much faster than most civil court cases.

If an individual or entity's dispute is more than $10,000.00 or $5,000.00, respectively, they can file the case in a superior court or small claims court. If they decide to file such a claim in small claims court, they cannot recover more than $10,000.00 or $5,000.00, respectively.

Per California law, plaintiffs generally may file up to two small claims cases over $2,500.00 in a calendar year. Plaintiffs may file as many lawsuits under $2,500.00 as they wish.

Time Limit to File a Small Claims Case

Specific time limits apply to small claims cases. If plaintiffs do not file their claim within the time limit, the statute of limitations may bar the action. The time limit depends on the nature of the case. Contact a civil litigation attorney for more information about specific statutes of limitations in California.

How to File a Small Claims Case

A plaintiff can initiate a small claims case by filing the Plaintiff's Claim and Order to Go to Small Claims Court form. The clerk's office at your county's courthouse can provide information about filing the claim form. The court clerk, however, cannot provide you with legal advice.

Plaintiffs can expect to pay a filing fee when filing their small claims action. The amount of the fee depends on the amount of money claimed. The fee is payable to the clerk of the court. Plaintiffs can request a fee waiver if they cannot afford the filing fee.

Once the plaintiff files a small claims case, they must serve the defendant they are suing with the documents. This is also known as the service of process. A plaintiff can serve the defendant in the following ways:

  • Personal service: A plaintiff can personally serve the documents on the defendant by handing the documents to them.
  • Process server: A plaintiff can hire a process server to serve the defendant. Process servers identify people and serve legal documents on them.
  • Certified Mail: Only the court can serve the defendant via certified mail. The court will typically charge a small fee to do so.

The person who served the defendant should prepare a proof of service. The plaintiff must file the proof of service before the court hearing.

Plaintiffs can find more information about filing a small claims case in California on California's self-help website.

Responding to a Small Claims Case

In a California small claims case, the defendant does not need to file an answer to the plaintiff's complaint. A defendant may contact the plaintiff to discuss and potentially settle the claim before the trial date.

If a defendant does not appear at the hearing, the judge will decide the case without them. Often, this means the defendant will lose their case. Therefore, it is crucial for the defendant to attend the hearing in person and tell their side of the story.

If the defendant believes the plaintiff owes them money, the defendant may file a claim against the plaintiff. To do so, the defendant may file a Defendant's Claim and Order to Go to Small Claims Court form. The claim does not need to be related to the plaintiff's claim. The defendant may have to pay court fees to file their claim.

What Happens at a Small Claims Hearing

The court will notify the parties of the small claims court date. All parties to the lawsuit should plan to appear in person for the hearing.

Before the trial, the parties should prepare to present their respective cases. This may include gathering evidence and securing witnesses to testify at trial. The parties may also ask the court if they offer any mediation programs. A mediator may help the parties resolve their case before trial.

At trial, the plaintiff will present their case. Once the plaintiff presents their case, the defendant can present their case.

What Happens After a Small Claims Hearing

The judge will either issue a judgment immediately after the trial or at some point after it. The court judgment becomes binding and enforceable 30 days after the clerk delivers the Notice of Final Judgment.

If the court determines you owe money, you may appeal the decision. You must file a Notice of Appeal within 30 days of the Notice of Final Judgment.

When a court judgment becomes enforceable, the party who owes money must pay the judgment. The prevailing party is responsible for enforcing the judgment. When the debtor pays the judgment, the creditor must file an Acknowledgement of Satisfaction of Judgment form.

If the debtor does not pay the judgment within 30 days, they must complete a Judgment Debtor's Statement of Assets form. The court may then seize the debtor's assets to pay the judgment.

Contact an Attorney To Help in Your Small Claims Case

Although parties may not hire an attorney to represent them in court in their small claims case, an attorney can help protect your legal rights and provide legal advice. An attorney can help you determine whether you should file your case in small claims court or a superior court. Additionally, they may help you navigate the small claims cases in California. Consider contacting a civil litigation attorney to protect your legal rights.

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