How to Represent Yourself in Small Claims Court
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How to Represent Yourself in Small Claims Court

How to prepare for small claims court and how to represent yourself in small claims court. The different state laws concerning small claims court.

Small claims court is just what it says, a court where small claims are settled in front of a judge. Many times someone will find themselves in a legal dispute over a contract, damages, wages or a number of other reasons. The disputed amount doesn’t warrant hiring a lawyer but is enough to justify a legal action. That is why there is small claims court, yet many people think that they cannot represent themselves in a court of law. That is exactly what happens in small claims court, people represent themselves. It usually works very well, as long as you are prepared, and isn’t nearly as hard as you might think it is.

Some of the reasons you might find yourself considering filing a legal action in small claims court could be not getting paid your proper amount of wages, a contract dispute for labor, getting your security deposit back from your landlord or damages to your property from a former tenant for example and hundreds of other reasons. The amounts involved don’t justify hiring and paying a lawyer.

This is a general outline of a small claims court since each state and sometimes counties have their own small claims court rules. These limits range from $1,500 in Kentucky and Rhode Island to $15,000 in Delaware and Georgia.

What about Lawyers in Small Claims Court

Lawyers are not allowed in small claims court under most rules. There are exceptions, if your opposition is an attorney, you can request that you have a lawyer represent you. Since it is somewhat unfair to be a non-lawyer and be in small claims court against a lawyer. But you don’t have to have a lawyer represent you since the rules of small claims court favor the average person, the person who is not an attorney. If you have legal questions you need answered, you can consult an attorney outside of the courtroom before you sue and or before you go to small claims court.

Be Prepared

Sometimes you aren’t the person suing in small claims court, but the person being sued. You have to be prepared either way. Being prepared enhances your chances of winning your case. Being prepared gives you confidence and being prepared makes you look professional. As lawyers like to say, make sure you have all of your ducks lined up. I have seen people in small claims court look far more professional than many lawyers do. To fully prepare yourself in small claims court you should do and have the following:


  • All paperwork and evidence you will need.
  • Know all the state statutes you will be using in your case.
  • Have everything neatly sorted and ready to read and to hand to the judge.
  • Make sure you are suing in the right county. This is known as the venue, and usually you sue in the county where the violation took place.
  • Make sure everyone is properly served. Hire a professional process server and have that person serve everyone you are suing separately. If you are suing Mr. and Mrs. John Doe, have each of these people served separately. Each person you are suing needs to be served with their own set of legal papers. You cannot serve anyone yourself, so hire a process server or even a county sheriff to serve the papers.
  • You have the power to subpoena paperwork, records and people as witnesses or anything else you might need to prove your case. For this, you will go to the court and fill out a form, then a judge will review your subpoena request and if granted you can once again use a process server to serve these subpoena papers to the proper person.

Nolo Press has books about small claims court for each state. You should consider getting one of these for your state and familiarize yourself with everything you need to know about your state laws.

Appeals in Small Claims Court

You can appeal the judge’s decision if you should lose, and if you win the opposing party can also appeal. In some states if you lose and you appeal, you must pay the amount you lost into a bond to the court before you can appeal.

Limit the amount of coffee you drink before going to court. You don’t need to be that nervous and you never know when your case will be called. Just because it is set for 9 AM doesn’t mean you will be called at that time, you might not get called until 11:30. You would hate to be in the bathroom when it’s your turn.

Dress and look as neatly as possible, be comfortable, polite and confident. You can be all of those things since you are prepared.

Small claims court limits and rules by state

© 2009 Sam Montana

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Comments (2)

Lucky me, I live in Rhode Island. $6,000.00 give or take a grand seems to be the magic number that I get screwed for often. Too much to sue in small claims, and not big enough to justify hiring a lawer, especially on contingency, as you outlined in this excellent article: Rhode Island need to up the amount! $10,000 would be perfect.

Ranked #30 in General Law

Yes, I thought of you when I saw the state limits. I just checked the Rhode Island court and the small claims limit is $2,500. The web page I have a link for at the bottom had the amount as $1500. That web page does have links to every states small claims rules, which is helpful and everyone should look at their states rules before deciding anything. $2,500 is still very low in this day and age. Next fall into winter before your state legislature makes up its yearly laws and bills to be voted on, you could write and ask them to consider raising this limit to a more realistic amount. Here is the link to the RI small claims rules.