DIFFICULTY: Legal help may be required
Initial Filing Fee: $30 to $75
Small Claims Court is used to settle minor cases involving a plaintiff and a defendant. The plaintiff is the person suing and the defendant is the person being sued. In California, small claims court can only be used if the plaintiff is pursuing a settlement of less than $5000 if the plaintiff is a business or less than $10,000 if the plaintiff is a person. In small claims court, neither the plaintiff nor the defendant may have legal counsel at the hearing. However, it is advisable to speak with a lawyer before your hearing to help you prepare arguments and organize your case. Small claims court in California involves three basic steps: filing for small claims court, serving the defendant the forms, and attending your court date. Before you file for small claims court, you must have asked the defendant for the claim you are suing for. Only after you have asked them to settle the dispute and been refused can you effectively file for small claims court.
Step 1: Fill out Forms
Fill out the Plaintiff’s Claim and Order to Go to Small Claims Court form. You will need to the defendant’s exact legal name and address as well as information about the dispute and the claim you are seeking.
Step 2: File with County Clerk
File your claim in the proper county court clerk’s office. If your claim is not filed at the correct location, your case may be dismissed. The proper county court clerk’s office may be the closest office to: the location of the dispute, the address of the plaintiff, the address of the defendant, or the address of the business, if a business is involved. Check with your county clerk before filing your claim to ensure you have the right location. Once your claim is filed, the clerk will assign you a court date.
Step 3: Serve your Documents
Make copies of your claim form and choose a method to serve the defendant their order to go to court. Options include: service by a law officer, process server, certified mail, and substitute server. Using a process server is the only free option, where you may use anyone not involved with the case and over 18 years of age to serve the defendant. All other options require small service fees.
Step 4: Hearing
Attend your hearing and explain your side of the dispute. Bring copies of your claim forms and any evidence that could help to back up your claim. Before your hearing, consider speaking with an attorney about the best way to handle your case.