Skip to main content
Find a Lawyer
Please enter a legal issue and/or a location
Begin typing to search, use arrow keys to navigate, use enter to select

Do I Need a Lawyer for Small Claims Court?

Not all disputes require the services of an attorney. Sometimes, all litigants need is a courtroom and a judge to decide who is right. You can go to small claims court if the matter involves a small amount of money, an eviction, or a property claim.

Anyone may file a civil case in small claims court. Small claims cases take less time than civil litigation. The streamlined process ensures laypeople can file the case without an attorney. Filing fees are lower, and judges give litigants more latitude in following court rules.

Small claims court cannot hear all cases. Family law cases like divorce, custody modifications, and visitation have their own court. Bankruptcy and probate are heard in separate courts as well. Finally, cases over the statutory value in your state must go to circuit court, not small claims court.

Can I Sue Someone in Small Claims Court?

The only limits to filing in small claims court are your age and the dollar amount requested. Any legal adult may file a civil lawsuit in court. Businesses can also file small claims cases, and emancipated minors may also file.

The limits for filing a small claims action vary from state to state. This is the maximum amount you may sue for in small claims. As of 2023, it can be as low as $2,500 (Kentucky) or as high as $25,000 (Tennessee). The average is about $10,000. These figures change periodically, so always check your state website before filing your claim.

Some states order alternative dispute resolution (ADR) before your case can proceed. The most common form of ADR is mediation. Mediation involves the parties meeting with a neutral third party to attempt to resolve the dispute without involving the court. In many states, the judge will order mediation before issuing a judgment.

Should I Hire a Law Firm for Small Claims Court?

The same district court hears small claims and all other cases. In many small claims courts, such as California, you cannot have an attorney represent you. You can speak with an attorney before filing your claim. In most cases, you should. You should always go to your court clerk's website and review your state's filing requirements first.

Many small claims attorneys offer legal advice for a flat fee. Since they will not represent you in court, you should have the attorney review your case before sending it in. This helps avoid filing errors that can delay your case or lead to a default judgment against you.

You will only pay filing fees and service costs if you don't hire an attorney. Attorney's fees can add up quickly. You shouldn't need an attorney if your case is straightforward and won't need much legal research.

Types of Cases Handled in Small Claims Court

Most small claims cases involve two people with a single dispute that has gone beyond simple negotiation. Landlord/tenant disputes and homeowner contract cases frequently end up in small claims court. State laws govern contract disputes, and laypeople don't know all the nuances of these laws. As a result, they need a judge to make a final decision for them. Common small claims cases include:

  • Contractor/homeowner disputes, such as overcharges and lack of payment
  • Landlord/tenant complaints, such as wrongful eviction or failure to return security deposits
  • Neighborhood disputes, noise complaints, and nuisance suits
  • Collection lawsuits for dues or fees

Small claims court cases end with monetary awards. Before you file, consider the amount of money you want from the other party. If you want something else, you probably cannot get that. For instance, if your neighbor's dog barks all night, you can sue them for causing a nuisance. If you can prove a monetary loss related to the dog barking all night, such as having to soundproof your bedroom, you can recover those costs. You cannot get a court order (an injunction) to make your neighbor keep the dog inside at night.

Timing, Costs, and Fees for Small Claims Court

Most civil actions are time-limited. The statute of limitations for a particular issue determines when you can file a claim, whether a small claims case or a civil lawsuit. For instance, in California, you must file a personal injury claim within two years of the date of injury. You have four years to file a breach of written contract claim. Your own state's statutes may vary. As noted, the dollar amount, not the nature of the case, matters.

Many courts have a legal help desk or self-help website. The staff at the help desk cannot give you legal advice, but they can give you the right forms for your case and tell you where you need to file. You may be able to file online, or e-file, your case.

Depending on your local court rules, you will pay filing fees of up to $200. The court clerk's office can tell you if there are any additional fees or costs. A few states (Alaska, Texas, and several others) have adopted a modified loser-pays system in which the losing party must pay the prevailing party's court costs if the case is frivolous or vexatious.

What Should I Expect in the Process?

To file your case and have a good chance of success, you'll need to do a few things in the correct order. The court's self-help site can walk you through the process.

  • Complete the correct forms. One form will ask you for the approximate amount you're suing for and a summary of why you believe you deserve the amount.
  • Include the defendant's correct name, address, and phone number.
  • Pay the filing fee and any additional costs.

Be sure you're filing in the right county and the correct courthouse. The right county can be deceiving. You must file your case in the county where the "cause of action accrued," meaning the location of the incident. Double-check which side of the line your tenant or contractor is on before filing a claim.

Once you file, you will receive a case number and a hearing date. The hearing date is when you and the defendant must appear in court. Once you have a court date, you'll need to deliver the notice of the hearing to the defendant. Service of process can be made by:

  • Anyone over a certain age who is not a party to the case
  • A paid process server
  • The sheriff's department or court officer

You cannot deliver service of process yourself. It's usually best to have a process server deliver the notice. There are legal requirements for delivering the summons and filing the return of service. Process servers know these and can deliver the summons and file it correctly.

Once the defendant receives the summons, they have a deadline to respond before the court date. You have a few things to do before the hearing. If you need an interpreter, you must request one from the court. Most courts do not have interpreters at the courthouses except for Spanish interpreters. There may be deadlines of up to 30 days to request interpreters.

If you want other accommodations, such as remote or telephonic hearings, or need to subpoena witnesses, contact the court at least a week before the hearing.

When You Go To Court

  • Arrive at least 30 minutes before your scheduled hearing. Remember that courthouses have security screenings, and there may be delays at the door.
  • Have all your documentation organized. Try to have three copies, one for yourself, the defendant, and the judge. Do not assume the judge will have a copy even though you filed it.
  • Do not enter the courtroom until the bailiff opens the door. Give the bailiff your name, sit down, and wait for the clerk to call you.
  • When the judge is talking, pay close attention. Follow all instructions carefully.

Because this is a small claims court with no attorneys present, the judge runs the court. You have more latitude than in a civil or criminal court, but there are some things you should never do. Remember, this is a real court and not a TV court. Judges get very cranky if litigants act like they are on "Court TV." Do not under any circumstances:

  • Talk over the judge
  • Argue with the other party
  • Approach the bench or the clerk unless asked to do so
  • Leave before the judge dismisses you

The judge will have one party, usually the plaintiff, give their side first. Then, the defendant has their turn. The judge may ask questions or ask for more paperwork. After the judge finishes reviewing your case, they rule immediately (a court judgment) or take the case under advisement. That means the judge wants to review the evidence before making a final decision. The parties will receive a judgment later by certified mail.

Getting Your Money After Winning

If you win a money judgment, you're still not done. The court does not help you collect your award. You can take steps to get any money owed to you, including garnishment (taking money from their bank account or wages), arranging a payment plan, or taking other personal property.

At this point, you may need an attorney. A legal expert should handle filing a lien against real property.

DIY or Legal Services for Small Claims Court

Talk with a small claims lawyer if you decide a lawyer will save you time and get a better result. Many offer a free phone consultation.

If you decide to try the DIY approach, you can often find more information in your local courts or on their websites to get you started.

Was this helpful?

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

Or contact an attorney near you:

Next Steps

Contact a qualified attorney to help you with preparing for and dealing with going to court.

Begin typing to search, use arrow keys to navigate, use enter to select

Help Me Find a Do-It-Yourself Solution

Copied to clipboard

Find a Lawyer

More Options