What is small claims court, and how does small claims court work?

Small claims court doesn’t mean the amount of money you can win is small. You can win up to $10,000 in California.

You’ll still get to go to court and explain your case. To win, you’ll have to prove that what you’re saying happened is more likely than the other side’s explanation and prove that your explanation likely happened. If it’s a tie, then the person you’re suing will win.

You don’t have to pay a lot of money to file. The cost to file in small claims court is between $30 and $75. There can be other costs involved, but the total cost of going to small claims court should be less than $150.

Why is it so cheap compared to regular court? Small claims court doesn’t have a different set of laws. It’s affordable because there are no lawyers involved. But since you don't need a lawyer, you might find yourself researching and doing paperwork alone. Dispute makes tools that simplify the filing process so that you can get money that you deserve.

It’s still best to try and make a deal out of court. Sometimes you can get everything you ask for by sending a formal letter (a demand letter.) If that doesn’t work, you should consider all your options. If you'd like, you can generate a demand letter in seconds with Dispute. We'll even mail it for you and save you the hassle of a trip to the post office.

Once you’ve determined you’ll need to go to small claims court, there are three distinct steps:

  1. File in the right courthouse. If you get it wrong, the judge may throw out your case.
  2. Serve the other person. Let the person or people you’re suing know that they’re being sued by getting them ‘served.’ You cannot do this yourself. You’ll need to hire a professional or get a friend to help.
  3. Go to court and explain your case. Be polite and respectful. Focus on the evidence and what it proves.

When would you go to small claims?

You can go to small claims when you want the judge to order that the other side should give you money. If you want anything other than money, such as a court order to do or not do something, then small claims isn’t the answer.

Common disputes that are a good fit for small claims courts include broken contracts, unreturned security deposits, property damage, and minor personal injuries.

Here’s an example:

John decided to move out of his apartment. After he found another place and signed a new lease, he notified his landlord. John could tell the landlord wasn’t happy. John had been a great tenant, though, and expected to get all of his security deposit back. There was no damage to the apartment other than normal wear and tear.

A few weeks after he moved out, the landlord said that he had to bring in professional cleaners and withheld all of John’s security deposit.

In this case, John is a perfect candidate for small claims court. He took photos of the apartment on his phone after he cleaned, and he knows that landlords can only charge for cleaning above and beyond normal use. His landlord didn’t even bother to send him a receipt proving that the cleaning company had cost all $1,000 of his security deposit.

After John sent his landlord a demand letter outlining his case, his landlord returned his security deposit in full. If he hadn’t, a judge could have awarded John three times his security deposit.

Before you file…

Find the laws that are relevant to your situation. Figure out if you have a case or not.

Think about the evidence you have and how you can use it to prove your claim is “more likely than not.” If the judge determines that claims of both sides are equally likely to be true, then the defendant wins the tie. The tie-breaker is the civil court version of innocent until proven guilty.

Getting all the evidence together is essential. Start putting together documents, text messages, screenshots, etc., as soon as possible. Back everything up.

Collect more evidence than you think you need. You never know what will come in handy later.

Determine a dollar value for how much you’re owed. If you win your case in small claims court, you can only win money, so you’ll need to explain to the judge how they’ll be able to make you whole by providing money.

When you’re determining how much money the defendant owes you, make sure that you can explain and back up your claim to the judge. If you paid the defendant a thousand dollars for something he didn’t do, then be sure to include a receipt, the notes you took about the deal, and/or the contract. Even texts discussing the amount can be helpful.

While you can be awarded court costs, don’t include those in the amount you request when you file.

If you haven’t already, talk or communicate informally with the person you feel has broken the law and harmed you. Let them know how they’ve caused you damage, and let them know how they can make you whole.

Speaking to someone may bring the law or your dissatisfaction with their actions to their attention for the first time. Whenever you talk with them, record your contact and put it in the beginnings of your file of evidence.

If your first attempts at working things out fail, strongly and firmly inform the defendant that you’re willing to sue them. Do not suggest that you will do anything else if they don’t comply, as that could be extortion. Send a formal letter through the mail that:

  • Outlines how they broke the law
  • Explains how their conduct harmed you
  • Includes the amount of money you’re requesting and why
  • Supplies a date for them to pay you by
  • Provides them a method to pay you (such as a check to your home address)

Wait a week or two for them to respond, and if needed, you may negotiate a settlement. Sometimes it’s worth it to accept less than what you think you’re owed to avoid waiting for a court to make them pay the full amount.

How to file

If you can’t make a deal with the defendant, you will have to go through the court system. This process begins by letting the right courthouse know that you’re pursuing legal action through standardized forms.

In California, the form you’ll have to file is the SC-100.

To file, you’ll have to select a courthouse. One simple rule is to file based on where the defendant lives. Although this can be inconvenient if you live far away, it can save you time in the long run by avoiding any mistakes in filing.

The defendant can get the case thrown out if you file in the wrong place, even if it’s not inconvenient. This can delay everything by months.

If the courthouse where the defendant lives is too inconvenient (perhaps it’s even out of state!), you can also generally file where the incident occurred. The rules for where you can file are based on the type of incident.

After you figure out where you want to file, courthouse websites all have guides on filing a case in their jurisdiction.

It’s essential to pay attention to the rules of the particular courthouse in which you’re filing. Although the rules across courthouses are very similar, they can vary. If you’re inattentive, your case could take a few extra months by having to wait in line all over again.

Some courthouses, for instance, have mandated e-filing while others allow filing in person and others allow filing by mail. Dispute’s self-help tool makes the filing process painless.

In general, all courthouses require you to fill out each form three times. Be sure to send or bring all three copies of each form to the courthouse, even your own copy.

You’ll end up keeping a copy for yourself after the clerk fills out their part of the form. The court will keep a copy, and the defendant will receive a copy when you notify them about the fact that you’re suing them.

If you’re filing by mail, be sure to include the exact payment in an accepted form (cash or check) and to include your copy of the form in the envelope. The courthouse will mail it back to you with additional information, such as the date they scheduled your hearing.

Get them served

Properly notifying all the defendants is an essential step. Without proof that you’ve let them know about the hearing, they avoid having to go to court and get to keep delaying your trial. The process of proper notification is called service of process.

While low cost-options, such as service by mail (arranged through the court clerk) and service by sheriff, exist, professional process servers are usually much faster and more reliable. They generally only charge $35 to $60 more, but that’s worth saving weeks of delay. Once successful, they’ll handle filing the court forms to prove that the defendant received proper notice. This lets the court know that you can win automatically if the defendant doesn’t show up.

You can never serve someone by yourself. If cost is an issue or if serving the defendant would be easiest if done by someone you know, any legal adult can serve someone on your behalf. If you do this, you still have to file proof of service. No one who is suing the defendant or who plans to sue the defendant should serve them.

You should research the particular forms needed for proof of service in your city.

If either you or the defendant doesn’t show up to court on the appointed day, then the judge can decide the case without the full trial as long as the other party has been properly notified. The judge will automatically decide that whoever shows up wins.

Argue in Court

Show up to court on the day the clerk tells you and argue your case. Focus on what the evidence proves and how. Be polite and respectful.

Be familiar with your evidence. Know precisely which day things happened on, and have a list nearby in case you get nervous and forget. Practice makes perfect.

You should prepare folders or packets of evidence with a table of contents. You should have at least three complete packets: one for yourself, one for the judge, and one for the defendant.