Illinois Small Claims Courts
Small claims court allows non-legal professionals to quickly and efficiently resolve their legal disputes on their own behalf. In Illinois, plaintiffs may file civil cases in the small claims courts if the claim does not exceed $10,000.00. The County Circuit Court processes relatively minor civil claims per Illinois Supreme Court Rules.
A litigant representing themselves in court is known as a pro se litigant. Parties to a small claims case are not required to hire attorneys to represent them. However, they are allowed to hire attorneys if they wish.
This article briefly summarizes Illinois' small claims court processes and rules. If you are involved in a small claims case, you may find the following links helpful:
- Illinois Supreme Court Rules: Rules 281-288 govern small claims actions.
- Small Claims Complaint Forms: The Supreme Court Commission on Access to Justice provides the complaint form and other forms. The plaintiff initiates their small claims case by filing the complaint.
- Illinois Legal Aid Questionnaire: Illinois Legal Aid Online created a short questionnaire that plaintiffs may complete. Based on the plaintiff's answers, the website will generate the necessary court forms, including the summons and complaint.
- Illinois Small Claims Court Self-Help: The state of Illinois has self-help resources and answers frequently asked questions (FAQs) regarding small claims cases.
- Illinois Attorney General: The Illinois Attorney General summarizes Illinois' small claims court processes.
- Responding to a Small Claims Case: Illinois Legal Aid Online has a guide for small claim defendants.
Although the small claims court system is designed to allow parties to represent themselves, such cases can involve complex questions of law or fact. Additionally, meeting certain filing deadlines is an important part of any small claims suit. If you are involved in a small claims case, consider contacting a civil litigation attorney near you.
What Is a Small Claims Action?
Plaintiffs may file several types of civil actions in the small claims court. The small claims court decides the following types of cases:
- Breach of contract
- Property damage
- Personal injury
- Garnishments to enforce judgments against debtors
- Disputes involving security deposits
Small claims actions cannot exceed $10,000.00, plus costs. If the plaintiff's claim exceeds $10,000.00, they can file the case in a superior court.
How to File a Small Claims Action
To initiate a small claims case, the plaintiff must fill out the following forms:
- Summons: The small claims summons notifies the defendant that the plaintiff is suing them. It also notifies the defendant when and how to respond to the lawsuit (the “Return Date"). The summons is designed to provide the defendant the opportunity to defend themselves.
- Complaint: The complaint contains a brief statement regarding the basis and monetary amount of the plaintiff's legal action. It also identifies the names of the plaintiff and the defendant, their mailing addresses, and their phone numbers. The plaintiff may attach supporting documentation to the complaint, such as the contract or lease involved in the case.
Once the plaintiff completes these forms, they must file them with the appropriate clerk of the circuit court. The court will charge a filing fee to file the case.
Where and When to File a Small Claims Action
- The court in the county where the events giving rise to the lawsuit occurred
- The court in the county where the defendant lives
- The court in the county where the plaintiff lives
The plaintiff must typically file the forms electronically (e-file). The county clerk may assist the plaintiff with filing the forms. The circuit clerk's office may not, however, provide legal advice.
Depending on the plaintiff's claim, specific deadlines to file the lawsuit apply. These timelines are known as the statute of limitations. Illinois state law determines the statute of limitations for certain claims. For example, the statute of limitations for written contracts in Illinois is 10 years. For oral contracts, the statute of limitations is five years. The statute of limitations will bar the action if the plaintiff does not file their claim within the time limit.
Notifying the Defendant - Service of Process
The plaintiff must serve the defendant with these documents within a certain amount of time. If the plaintiff fails to serve the defendant timely, the court may dismiss the lawsuit. The court clerk can inform the plaintiff of the service deadlines.
The plaintiff can use one of the following methods to effect the service of process:
- Contact the County Sheriff: A plaintiff may contact the sheriff's office in the county where they filed their lawsuit. They can request the sheriff to serve the defendant with a copy of the complaint and summons.
- Certified Mail: Many courts allow plaintiffs to serve defendants with certified mail. The court may send the forms via certified mail. Courts will typically charge a fee to send the forms.
- Special Process Server or a Private Detective: In most jurisdictions, a plaintiff may hire a private process server or private detective to serve the defendant. In Cook County, the plaintiff must request a special appointment of a process server or private detective by a judge. This process may involve additional fees.
- Personal Service: A plaintiff may personally serve the defendant with the summons and complaint. This involves physically delivering the court forms to the defendant.
If the plaintiff can show the judge that the conventional service methods will not likely be effective, the judge may order other methods of service. For example, the judge may allow the plaintiff to serve the defendant via email, text message, or a direct message on social media. The judge must approve this method before a plaintiff can properly effect service.
If the plaintiff cannot serve the defendant after a good faith effort, they must prepare an alias summons. An alias summons is a second summons filed after the plaintiff tries and fails to serve the defendant. The county sheriff may have to serve the alias summons. The court clerk can provide additional information about the alias summons process.
Once the plaintiff serves the defendant, the plaintiff must file an affidavit of service with the court.
Responding to a Small Claims Case
A defendant must respond to the plaintiff's summons and complaint. The defendant typically does not have to file a formal answer to the complaint unless the judge requires it. An answer is a written statement of the defendant's case. Although courts do not always require an answer, a defendant may file an appearance. The appearance notifies the court and the plaintiff that the defendant intends to participate in the case.
If the defendant does not respond to the plaintiff's summons and complaint and does not attend the scheduled court date, the plaintiff may request the court for a default judgment. If the court issues a default judgment in the plaintiff's favor, they win the case. Filing an appearance will most likely prevent the judge from filing a default judgment in the plaintiff's favor.
The defendant may file a counterclaim against the plaintiff. For example, if the defendant believes the plaintiff owes them some amount of money, they may file a counterclaim. The defendant must serve the counterclaim on the plaintiff or the plaintiff's lawyer.
Before the Small Claims Court Trial
After the plaintiff files their claim, the court will set a court date. Before the trial, the parties may gather evidence and secure witnesses to testify at the trial. A party may request the court to issue a subpoena. A subpoena is a court order compelling witnesses to testify at trial or a party to produce documents.
The parties may agree to settle their case at any time before the trial. They may also request a mediation, where a neutral mediator will talk with both parties and try to reach a mutually satisfactory resolution. Mediation is often a free service available to parties.
The Small Claims Court Trial
At the small claims court hearing, the parties will each present their case to the court. The judge decides most small claims cases, although parties may request a jury trial before the hearing. Small claims courts follow relaxed rules of evidence and procedure. The judge may be more active in the small claims court hearing than in a civil jury trial.
Both parties will typically present their opening statements to the court. Then, the plaintiff will present their case. This can include producing evidence to the court and conducting examinations of witnesses. If a party calls a witness to testify, the other party can cross-examine the witness. When the plaintiff finishes presenting their case, the defendant will present their case.
When the trial concludes, the judge will issue their decision. The court will issue a written judgment indicating which party prevails. The judge may grant all or some of the money requested. The court may order the losing party to pay the prevailing party's court costs.
If a party disagrees with the court's decision, they may appeal it. The district appellate court will hear the appeal.
Enforcing a Judgment
It is the prevailing party's responsibility to enforce the judgment. The judgment's amount is payable immediately. Once the losing party pays money according to a judgment, the prevailing party should give the losing party a Release and Satisfaction of Judgment form to file with the court.
If the losing party (the judgment debtor) cannot or does not pay the judgment within 30 days of the judgment's date, the prevailing party (the judgment creditor) may request the court's assistance. To do so, they may begin judgment collection proceedings. This can include garnishing the judgment debtor's wages or taking money directly from the debtor's bank accounts.
Consult an Attorney
Small claims cases can involve complex questions of law and fact. Although parties are not required to hire an attorney to represent them in a small claims case, an attorney can provide critical legal advice regarding their claims. If you are involved in a small claims case, consider contacting a civil litigation attorney near you.
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