Small claims court

Small claims court

Small-claims courts have limited jurisdiction to hear civil cases between private litigants. Courts authorized to try small claims may also have other judicial functions, and the name by which such a court is known varies by jurisdiction; it may be known as a county or magistrate's court. These courts can be found in Australia, Canada, England and Wales, Ireland, Israel, New Zealand, Scotland, South Africa, Hong Kong, and the United States.


Purpose and operation

The business of small-claims courts typically encompasses small private disputes in which large amounts of money are not at stake, usually a maximum of $15,000[citation needed] in most US states. The routine collection of small debts forms a large portion of the cases brought to small-claims courts, as well as evictions and other disputes between landlords and tenants, unless the jurisdiction is already covered by a tenancy board.

A small-claims court will generally have a maximum monetary limit to the amount of judgments it can award, often in the thousands of dollars/pounds. By suing in a small-claims court, the plaintiff typically waives any right to claim more than the court can award. The plaintiff may or may not be allowed to reduce a claim to fit the requirements of this venue. "Court shopping", where a plaintiff seeks to reduce the amount of damages claimed in order to fit a trial into a court that would otherwise not have jurisdiction, is strictly forbidden in some states. For example, if a plaintiff asserts damages of $30,000 in hopes of winning an award of $25,000 in small-claims court, the court will dismiss the case because the court does not have jurisdiction to hear cases in which the asserted damages exceed the court's maximum amount. Thus, even if the plaintiff is willing to accept less than the full amount, the case cannot be brought to small-claims court. To bring the case to small-claims court, the plaintiff must prove that the actual damages were within the court's jurisdiction. In some jurisdictions, a party who loses in a small-claims court is entitled to a trial de novo in a court of more general jurisdiction and with more formal procedures.

The rules of civil procedure, and sometimes of evidence, are typically altered and simplified in order to make the procedures economical: one guiding principle usually operating in these courts is that individuals ought to be able to conduct their own cases and represent themselves without recourse to a lawyer. Even though rules are relaxed, they still apply to some degree. In some jurisdictions, corporations must still be represented by a lawyer in small-claims court. Expensive court procedures such as interrogatories and depositions are usually not allowed in small-claims court, and practically all matters filed in small-claims court are set for trial. Under some court rules, should the defendant not show up at trial and not have requested postponement, a default judgment may be entered in favor of the plaintiff.

Trial by jury is seldom or never conducted in small-claims courts; it is typically excluded by the statute establishing the court. (The state of Washington is one exception, allowing either party to demand a jury trial.[1]) Similarly, equitable remedies such as injunctions, including protective orders, are seldom available from small-claims courts.

Separate family courts may exist to hear simple cases in family law. For reasons having more to do with history than with the sort of case typically heard by a small-claims court, most US states do not allow domestic relations disputes to be heard in small-claims court.

Winning in small-claims court does not automatically ensure payment in recompense of a plaintiff's damages. This may be relatively easy, in the case of a dispute against an insured party, or extremely difficult, in the case of an uncooperative, transient, or indigent defendant. The judgment may be collected through wage garnishment and liens.

Most courts encourage parties with disputes to seek alternative dispute resolution, if possible, before filing suit. For example, the Superior Court of Santa Clara provides guidelines for resolving disputes out of court. Both parties can agree on arbitration by a third party to settle their dispute outside of court, though while small-claims court judgments can still be appealed,[2] arbitration awards cannot.

Small-claims courts in the United States

The movement to establish small-claims courts typically began in the early 1960s, when Justice of the Peace courts were increasingly being seen as obsolete and it was felt to be desirable to have such a court to allow people to represent themselves without legal counsel. In New York State, the establishment of small claims courts came in response to the 1958 findings of Governor Thomas E. Dewey's Tweed Commission on the reorganization of the state judiciary. Since then, the movement to establish small-claims courts has led to their establishment in most US states. There is no equivalent to a small-claims court in the US federal court system, although certain types of civil claims are routinely referred to US magistrates for preliminary handling.

Changes within the small-claims court laws

Effective since the year 2010, the costs of filing fees have increased in almost every state throughout the US. Filing fees typically range from US$15 to $150, depending on the claim amount.


Some jurisdictions offer classes in small-claims court procedures. As such courts are open to the public, attendance at a few sessions may be useful to a person involved in a case, whether as plaintiff or defendant.

Small-claims court on television

Several small-claims court television shows have appeared on network daytime television, but these are not truly courts of law, even though they attempt to give that appearance; they are merely forms of arbitration. Such shows include The People's Court, Judge Judy, and Judge Joe Brown.[3]

Small-claims courts in Canada

All provinces have procedures for small claims in Canada. In general, there are two different models. In most provinces, including British Columbia, Alberta, and New Brunswick, small-claims courts operate independently of the superior courts. In other jurisdictions, the small-claims court is a branch or division of the superior court. In Ontario, the Small-Claims Court is a branch of the Superior Court of Justice, and in Manitoba, the Small-Claims Court is under the jurisdiction of the Court of the Queen's Bench.

Small-claims cases are heard by judges of the Provincial Court in British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan, by judges or deputy judges of the Superior Court of Justice in Ontario, and by Hearing Officers in Manitoba.

The small-claims courts are meant to be easier and less expensive ways to resolve disputes than the higher courts. Small-claims court procedure is regulated both by provincial legislation and rules in most provinces. Small-claims procedure is simplified with no strict pleadings requirements and no formal discovery process, and parties' costs may be limited.

Monetary limits for small-claims courts in Canada vary by province:

  • Alberta: The Provincial Court—Civil hears civil claims up to $25,000.
  • Nova Scotia: The maximum claim that may be recovered in the Small-Claims Court cannot exceed $25,000.
  • British Columbia: The maximum claim that may be recovered in the Small-Claims Division of the Provincial Court is $25,000.
  • Manitoba: Small-Claims Courts adjudicated claims up to $10,000.[4]
  • New Brunswick: Claims to the Small-Claims Court of New Brunswick must be less than $6,000.
  • Newfoundland and Labrador: The Provincial Court of Newfoundland and Labrador hears civil claims up to $5,000.
  • Ontario: The new limit for small-claims is $25,000.[5]
  • Quebec: Claims to the Small-Claims Court of Quebec cannot exceed $7,000.
  • Saskatchewan: Claims within the Civil Division of the Saskatchewan Provincial Court cannot exceed $20,000 in value.

In general, disputes involving title to land, slander, libel, bankruptcy, false imprisonment, or malicious prosecution must be handled in a superior court and cannot be determined in small-claims courts.

Small-claims courts in Australia

Small-claims courts in Australia are handled by the State system.

England and Wales

Except through common misconception, England and Wales does not have a Small Claims Court as an establishment separate from the County Court.[6] Instead, low value cases, including most non-personal injury cases up to £5,000, will usually be assigned to the small claims track, producing a small claims action in the County Court. These cases are heard by District Judges under an informal procedure.[7]

The separate small claims procedure was first introduced for claims up to £75 in 1973.[8] This flowed from the statutory power of judges to order arbitration.[9] The limit was raised to £1,000 in 1991, £3,000 in 1996 and £5,000 in 1999. As of 2011 consultation is underway on raising the limit to £15,000.[8] It should be noted that the limit is only a guideline. The court may allocate a case to the small claim track where the claim is over the guideline if it is considered that the case is simple enough that it is an appropriate way of disposing of the matter.

Small-claims procedure in Europe

A European small claims procedure for cross-border claims under the Brussels regime was established on January 1, 2009, processing claims with values up to 2,000 EUR.[10]

See also


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Look at other dictionaries:

  • small claims court — n: a special court intended to simplify and expedite the resolution of minor disputes involving small claims Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of Law. Merriam Webster. 1996. small claims court …   Law dictionary

  • small claims court — UK US noun [countable] [singular small claims court plural small claims courts] legal a law court in which people try to get back small amounts of money that they think other people or businesses owe them Thesaurus …   Useful english dictionary

  • small claims court — A Court which has simplified rules, thus encouraging non lawyers to attend at the Court without legal representation. In British Columbia, the amount that can be considered in a small claims action is $10,000 or less (Dictionary of Canadian… …   Glossary of Bankruptcy

  • small claims court — ➔ court1 …   Financial and business terms

  • small claims court — n a court where people can make legal claims involving small amounts of money …   Dictionary of contemporary English

  • small-claims court — small′ claims′ court n. law a special court established to handle small claims or debts, usu. without the services of lawyers …   From formal English to slang

  • small claims court — ► NOUN ▪ a local court in which claims for small sums of money can be heard and decided quickly and cheaply, without legal representation …   English terms dictionary

  • small claims court — small claims ,court noun count a law court in which people try to get back small amounts of money that they think other people or businesses owe them …   Usage of the words and phrases in modern English

  • small-claims court — noun : a special court intended to simplify and expedite the handling of small debts or claims * * * /smawl klaymz / a special court established to handle small claims or debts, usually without the services of lawyers. Also called small debts… …   Useful english dictionary

  • small claims court — UK / US noun [countable] Word forms small claims court : singular small claims court plural small claims courts legal a law court in which people try to get back small amounts of money that they think other people or businesses owe them …   English dictionary

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