Small Claims Court is an easy, fast way for everyday people to access justice in many civil disputes. If you've already sent a demand letter, and filled out your small claims paperwork, the next step towards having a hearing will be to file it with the courthouse. This article will help show how you can do that correctly and efficiently in several ways.
Remember, Dispute can help you generate, sign and even notarize small claims filing from the courthouse of your choice from your phone or computer in minutes.
Step 1: Make Copies of the Paperwork
It's essential to have a few copies made before you pass the paperwork to anyone else. Our suggestion is that you make 2-3 hard copies of your completed paperwork. It's possible the court will want you to file the original document with them. So, a copy of the completed paperwork will ensure you have one to reference in your records and another for the defendant.
You will also want to make 3 copies of any supporting documents (or evidence) you plan to use during your potential hearing. Check with the courthouse clerk on when you submit proof (either before the hearing or with the filing) and be prepared to have copies for you, the court, and the defendant to review.
Step 2: Find the Courthouses Filing Methods
There are three different ways courthouses accept small claims filings. Knowing how to utilize them properly will save you from wasting your time (and money) by finding out your filing was rejected. You can expect that the courthouse accepts filings "in person" at some physical location, by mail and many are now accepting filings from a digital app, or website.
The fastest way to find out how your specific courthouse accepts filings is to find their website. Head to Google(or another search engine) and type the court's name and the words "small claims court" into the search function.
As you can see in my search, the first result that was returned is the "Small Claims" division of the Superior Court of California - County of San Francisco. One tip to help identify the right website is to know it's likely the courthouse you're looking for is using a website URL that ends with a ".gov" or ".org".
Once you click on the court's webpage, you'll want to look for one of the following to help you identify the court's filing rules:
Contact Information - Every website should have the court's address, phone number, and their clerk's hours of operation listed. Calling or showing up during business hours to speak with the clerk is a great way to find out information on how this specific court handles filings.
Small Claims - It may be that you have found the court's website but they serve many types of cases. Identifying the "small claims" section of the site can help narrow down how they receive filings. It's possible in that section they state where the court will receive mail if they have a digital filing "portal", and other helpful information.
Self-Help - Anything labeled "self-help" will likely take you to a section where they answer frequently asked questions or facilitate online filing without the clerk's assistance. Many courthouses produce digital guides to download that walk you through the process of working with them. You can often find this information here as well.
Fees and Forms - This section of the site will often show how much it'll cost to file various documents (like your small claims petition) with the courthouse. It'll also provide copies of blank forms for you to access. Note: Most courthouses provide these for free but some do charge per download.
When in doubt, speaking with someone who works at the small claims courthouse will be your best bet in finding the right answer.
By our estimate, here are the advantages and disadvantages of filing using each method:
Advantages: If you file in person, you will likely get the chance to speak with the court clerk and have them answer any questions. This can help you fix any issues that may cause your request to be rejected. Rejection won't mean you can't refile but it will slow down your pursuit of justice as most courthouses take at least a few days to review your documents.
Disadvantages: Driving down to the courthouse and possibly waiting in line will likely take the most time out of all the filing methods. Many courthouses are only open 4-8 hours a day and some aren't open every day of the week. If something does go wrong, you may have to make multiple trips.
Advantages: If you send the courthouse your filing and payment by mail, you can do so from the comfort of your home or local post office. In addition, this enables you to file at a courthouse that you can't physically reach. Sometimes, you may find that your filing has to be done in a different state, so filing the case by mail can be a lot cheaper than paying for gas or a series of airplane tickets. You can pay to mail your filing with a method that has tracking attached to ensure it reaches its destination.
Disadvantages: Once you send it off to the courthouse, you may be waiting a few weeks to hear back about the case. You'll likely need to provide a return envelope and postage for the courthouse to send you back their answer on your filing. Paying for postage increases your upfront costs. If your case is rejected, they may call you by telephone, but that's not guaranteed. So, you may be waiting weeks for the mail to arrive, only to find out your paperwork was rejected. In addition, filing by mail provides the least amount of support. In-person enables you to speak with a court clerk, while many digital platforms provide basic instructions to assist with the document.
Digital or Electronic Filing
Advantages: Some courthouses provide digital portals or websites where you can file a small claims document directly to the court clerk from your computer or phone. This can be very convenient and enables you to file a case outside the court's business hours. In addition, you may receive a digital confirmation in the form of a receipt or email, ensuring that your document was received by the court. There isn't waiting in lines, having to drive and find parking, or taking time off work during the day.
Disadvantages: Many of the websites used for filing don't offer a lot of support or knowledge on how to best use them. You may find the process confusing, even if you are a "computer person". In addition, you may need to convert any physical documents (or evidence) into digital documents if the courthouse requests them at the time of the filing. And while you do get any information the website provides on filing, you don't have access to the court clerk for clarifying questions.
As you can see, each method of filing has different pluses and minuses that you'll need to consider when deciding how to file your small claims paperwork. But filing your small claims paperwork should be an easier process now that you know where to find out how your courthouse handles it.
Frequently Asked Questions:
What forms of payments do the courthouses accept? How much does it cost?
- While stating the obvious, i_t varies from courthouse to courthouse_, we can also say that most accept cash, money orders, and sometimes personal checks. If you're filing online, they'll likely accept Visa and Mastercard. It's less likely but still very possible they accept Discover and American Express. Most courthouses charge a fee for filing a case successfully with them. You may want to ask for financial assistance with the fees if you need support.
How long does it take to get a court date after filing?
- Most courthouses will process and review your filing in about 2-4 weeks. If you don't hear back in a few weeks, you should call the court and ask about your filing. Some courthouses will assign a hearing date when they accept your filing, but others will only set it later after the service of the defendant. You can read more about how long it takes to complete the process.
How do I serve the defendant?
- It's likely that you'll be responsible for "serving the defendant" which is the legal process for delivering notice of the potential lawsuit to the defendant. Many courthouses allow multiple types of services (including hiring local law enforcement for a small fee), so speak with the court clerk or check the court's website to find out more information. We also wrote an article to help expand on how to serve your defendant.
Can Dispute file the case for me?
Dispute isn't filing any cases at this time. Our platform helps you generate, sign and even notarize a small claims document at the courthouse of your choice from your phone or computer in minutes. Once completed, you can file the form and quickly get justice in small claims court.