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Hawaii Small Claims Courts

The Small Claims Division of the District Court governs small claims cases in Hawaii. Plaintiffs can file civil cases in small claims court if the amount in controversy does not exceed $5,000.00. The rules regarding small claims cases are set out in Section 633 of the Hawaii Revised Statutes.

Small claims courts are designed to allow litigants to quickly resolve their cases without hiring an attorney. Such cases follow simplified Hawaii court rules and are relatively informal. Although litigants do not need to hire an attorney, they are typically allowed to do so. However, if the claim involves the return of a security deposit, the parties cannot hire attorneys.

This article covers the basic rules of small claims cases filed in Hawaii. Litigants may find the following resources helpful while preparing for a small claims case:

Although the small claims court in Hawaii is designed to help non-legal professionals resolve their cases without an attorney, their claims may involve complex questions of law or fact. If you are involved in a small claims case, consider contacting a civil litigation attorney for legal advice.

Hawaii Small Claims Courts Explained

Small claims court procedures and rules are relatively simple compared to state court cases involving larger disputes. Generally, there are no attorneys or jury trials in small claims courts. Small claims cases typically resolve within a couple of months, much quicker than a district court claim. Court and filing fees in small courts are also inexpensive compared to state court cases.

Hawaii small claims courts have limited jurisdiction. Small claims courts can only decide cases that meet certain requirements. For example, these courts cannot hear claims that exceed $5,000.00, per Hawaii Revised Statutes Section 633-27. Court costs and filing fees are not included in the $5,000.00 jurisdictional limit. Generally, small claims courts can only decide the following types of cases:

  • Cases involving the recovery of an amount of money not to exceed $5,000.00
  • Disagreements between landlords and tenants about a residential security deposit
  • Cases involving the return of personal property worth less than $5,000.00

The court does not hear all civil claims, such as evictions.

The plaintiff may acquire the necessary court forms online or at their local courthouse.

Filing a Small Claims Case

The person or entity who files a lawsuit is called the plaintiff. The person or entity being sued is the defendant. The plaintiff and defendant are known as parties to the small claims case.

To initiate a small claims case, the plaintiff must file a Statement of Claim form with the court clerk. The Statement of Claim sets out the basis of the plaintiff's claim, including the amount of money they allege the defendant owes them. It must also identify the defendant's name and address.

The court will charge the plaintiff a filing fee. If the plaintiff cannot afford the filing fee, they may claim financial hardship, and the judge may waive it.

If the plaintiff's claim exceeds $5,000.00, the plaintiff cannot file in small claims court. Instead, they can file their case at the circuit court.

Where and When to File

Hawaii is divided into the following four judicial circuits:

  • First Circuit (O'ahu)
  • Second Circuit (Maui, Moloka'i, Lana'i, Kaho'owale, and Molokini)
  • Third Circuit (Hawai'i)
  • Fifth Circuit (Kaua'i, Ni'ihau, Ka'ula)

There is a district and circuit court in each circuit. Each judicial circuit is divided into several divisions. The plaintiff must file their claim in one of the following divisions:

  • Where the defendant resides
  • If the defendant does not reside in a judicial circuit, the division where the claim for relief arose
  • If the claim for relief arose outside of a judicial circuit, the division where the defendant can be found
  • If multiple defendants are living in different divisions, the division where the claim for relief arose
  • In claims involving a security deposit dispute, the division where the defendant resides (If the defendant lives outside of the state, the division where the property is located)

State law requires plaintiffs to file civil claims of actions within specific time periods. This is called the statute of limitations. The statute of limitations will bar the action if a plaintiff does not file within the proscribed time limit.

Serving the Defendant

Once the plaintiff files their small claims case, they must notify the defendant of the case. The court clerk will typically prepare a notice stating the hearing date, time, and location. However, the plaintiff is responsible for serving the notice and the Statement of Claim upon the defendant.

The plaintiff may serve notice upon the defendant in the following ways:

  • Personal service: The plaintiff may physically deliver the claim and notice upon the defendant to effect service. If the plaintiff chooses to do this, they must obtain the defendant's signature acknowledging the plaintiff served them. Alternatively, the plaintiff may have a witness with them when they serve the defendant. The witness may not be related to or employed by the plaintiff. The witness must file a document indicating they witnessed the plaintiff serve the defendant. The witness may also appear at the hearing and testify that they witnessed the plaintiff serve the defendant.
  • Certified Mail: The plaintiff may send the claim and notice to the defendant by certified mail. The plaintiff must send the certified mail via restricted delivery, and they must request a return receipt. With some exceptions, the plaintiff must present the return receipt at the hearing, showing when the mail was delivered, and it must have the defendant's signature.
  • Process Server: The plaintiff may hire a private process server to serve the defendant.

Regardless of their chosen method, the plaintiff must provide proof of service to the court. Failure to do so may cause delays in the plaintiff's case.

If the plaintiff incurs fees while serving the defendant, they may recover the fees if they win their case.

Responding to a Small Claims Case

A defendant does not need to file any documents to respond to the plaintiff's lawsuit. The defendant must appear at the scheduled small claims hearing to respond to the case.

If the defendant believes the plaintiff owes them money, they can file a counterclaim. The defendant may claim up to $40,000.00 in their counterclaim against the plaintiff. The defendant must notify the plaintiff of the counterclaim. Service may occur via mail before trial.

Dispute Resolution

The judge may order the parties to attempt dispute resolution, such as mediation, before the trial. The parties will discuss the case with a neutral mediator in a mediation. The goal of mediation is to come to a mutually satisfactory resolution of the case.

If the parties do not resolve the case at mediation, they will present their cases to the judge at the small claims trial.

The Small Claims Hearing

Before the small claims court trial, the parties may gather evidence to present to the court. They may also secure witnesses to testify at the trial. If a witness indicates they will not willingly appear to testify, a party may request the court to issue a subpoena. A subpoena is a court order compelling the witness to testify. A party may also request a subpoena to obtain documents from another party.

Most small claims court hearings require the parties to appear in person. The court may issue a default judgment if the defendant does not appear for the hearing. If the court issues a default judgment in favor of the plaintiff, the plaintiff wins the case. If the plaintiff does not appear at the hearing, the court may dismiss their case.

At the hearing, both parties will present their cases to the judge. This can include presenting evidence to the court and witness testimony. The judge may ask the parties or witnesses questions or for clarification on specific issues.

The judge will issue the court's judgment after the trial concludes. Parties cannot appeal the small claims court's decision.

Enforcing a Judgment

The prevailing party is responsible for collecting on the court's judgment. The court is not a collections agency. Moreover, the judgment is not an order to pay money. Instead, the judgment simply identifies who owes whom money.

Following a judgment, the party who is owed money is the creditor. The party who owes money is the debtor. Once the debtor pays the judgment in full, the creditor must file a Satisfaction of Judgment form with the court. The court can provide the creditor with this form.

Although the court cannot provide legal advice to the creditor with regard to enforcing the judgment, the creditor may request the court's assistance. For example, the creditor may request a Writ of Garnishment or Writ of Execution from the court to enforce the judgment.

Contact an Attorney

Although parties do not need to hire an attorney for their small claims case, an attorney can provide important legal services for parties. Generally, attorneys are not entitled to attorney's fees in small claims cases. However, state law may allow attorneys to collect attorney's fees in certain circumstances.

An experienced civil litigation attorney can provide you with advice regarding the following:

  • Landlord-tenant litigation
  • General information about small court claims and specific information about your case
  • The State of Hawaii's small court rules
  • How to enforce a judgment

If you are involved in a small claims case, consider contacting a civil litigation attorney in Hawaii near you.

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