Small claims is a court within the Superior Court where disputes are resolved quickly and inexpensively. Attorneys are not permitted to represent either party in the dispute (except on appeal). Small claims cases are for damages of $10,000 or less. Small claims is affordable and fast, with simple and informal rules. The rules are fairly simple and the hearing is informal.
- The party filing the claim is the plaintiff.
- The person being sued is the defendant.
If you are the defendant and are filing a Claim of Defendant, you will remain the defendant and the plaintiff will remain the plaintiff.
If you choose Small Claims court to resolve a dispute and you are the plaintiff, you give up the right to have another court review the Small Claims judge's decision. In other words, the plaintiff has no right of appeal. So if you should lose, that's probably the end of the case. However, the person or entity you sue (defendant) may appeal the judge's ruling. When such an appeal is filed, the entire case will be heard again.
If you are the plaintiff and a Claim of Defendant is filed (the defendant sues you on the same case) and you have a judgment against you, you may file an appeal on that decision.
Small Claims Advisor
The Self-Help Center has all of the small claim forms and is able to assist you with filling out the forms.
Filing Your Claim
Go to the court closest to you and obtain a small claims packet for filing your case.
The Small Claims court has a monetary limit, called a jurisdictional limit, on the amount of money damages that a person can claim. The most you can ask for is $5,000; however, you are limited to filing no more than two claims anywhere in the State of California for over $2,500 in one calendar year. You may file an unlimited amount of claims for $2,500 or less.
Role of the Court Clerk
The Small Claims court clerks can answer many kinds of questions and provide the forms you need; however, they are prohibited by law to give legal advice. The Small Claims Advisory Clinic provides legal advice free of charge to both the plaintiff and the defendant. See the other helpful web sites listed below for information on filing a claim.
Website to Help You File a Claim
The California Courts website has a section full of information needed to go through the process of a small claims suit, including an overview, forms, rules, tips, and much more.
What to Expect in Court
- Come to court organized and prepared.
- Arrive promptly at your assigned court time; if you arrive late, your case may be heard without you.
- Bring enough photocopies of all your evidence for each party and the judge.
- Any copies submitted to the judge the day of trial may not be returned to you.
- Bring all your witnesses.
- If both parties are present, meaning both the plaintiff and the defendant, you will be asked to go into the hallway to exchange and review any documents that will be submitted to the judge as evidence. This must be done prior to the case being heard.
- Have all your documents ready and in chronological order when your case is called.
- There will be several other cases assigned to the same time as yours so you may have to wait to have your case heard.
- You may be asked to sign a stipulation allowing a pro-tem judge (temporary judge) to hear your case. If you do not wish to have a temporary judge hear your case, your case may be continued to a date when there is a commissioner or judge of the Superior Court to hear your case.
- You may decline a temporary judge when you file your claim and avoid a continuance to another date.
- When your case is called, you will stand at a podium in front of the superior court judge or a pro-tem judge. You will be asked to present your evidence and give your testimony. Always address the judge and not the other party. Usually, the plaintiff will give his/her testimony first and then the defendant.
- The judge will probably ask questions to further his/her understanding of the case.
- If you are the only party to appear at the trial and you are the plaintiff, you still must prove your case. Do not expect to "automatically" win your case if the other party does not appear.
- The proceedings will not be recorded by a court reporter or by any other type of recording.
- If you are not fluent in the English language, you must bring an interpreter with you. Small Claims courts do not provide interpreters.
- The judge will usually not tell you the decision in court. The decision (judgment) will be mailed to you.
If You Are The Defendant
If you have been named as a defendant in a Small Claims action and have received an order to appear at a Small Claims hearing, this means that you are being sued. If you don't know why you are being sued, contact the plaintiff immediately for an explanation.
Never ignore an order to appear in court even if you think the case is wrong, unfair, or has no basis. If you do not appear in court at the proper time and date, the court may still hear and decide the case without you and you may lose the suit by default.
If you believe the plaintiff has caused you injury or owes you money for any reason, you can file a claim against the plaintiff in the same Small Claims court action. If your case is related to the subject of the plaintiff's case, it may be helpful and convenient to resolve it at the same hearing by filing a Defendant's Claim and Order to Plaintiff.
If judgment has been entered against you and the appeal time has lapsed, your money or property and maybe a portion of your earnings can then be taken legally by the judgment creditor to pay the judgment against you. A Small Claims judgment is public record. Small Claims court does not report to any credit reporting agency; however, these agencies come to the court often and place the judgment on the losing party's credit record even after the judgment is paid.
Visit our FAQ page for more information.