Small Claims Court

What is Small Claims Court All About?

Small Claims is about settling disputes in a court
of law so you don't end up looking like this picture!
If you come to court prepared you will have a much
better chance of achieving your desired results.

Below are some guidelines to help you.

For your convenience we have posted many of the
forms used in Small Claims Court here.

Answers To The Following Questions:

What is Small Claims?
Who can use the court?
Should you file a small claims lawsuit?
Where do you file the lawsuit?
How do you file the lawsuit?
What are the procedures?
How do you notify the defendant?
What will happen at the trial?



What Is Small Claims?

Small Claims is a term used to describe a procedure which simplifies the court process used for resolving civil disputes that involve relatively small amounts of money ($5,000 or less--excluding court costs, interest and/or attorney's fees, if applicable). Small Claims cases are heard in the civil division of the county court.

In Florida the special rules of procedure which are used in small claims cases are called the Small Claims Rules (S. C. R.).

The Small Claims Rules serve to make the small claims court process simpler, speedier and more informal than the regular civil court process. These rules are published in the Florida Rules of Court and the Florida Statutes Annotated. These publications can usually be found at any public library or law library. If you are not familiar with the Small Claims Rules, you should read them for your own information prior to going through the small claims process.

A basic goal of the small claims process is to enable any person or business to resolve their small civil disputes through the court system without having to go through formal and complex court procedures.

Who May Sue In Small Claims?

Any person eighteen (18) years of age or older may file a small claims lawsuit. A person under eighteen years old may also sue in small claims, but only if his parent(s) or guardian files the suit for him. A business, whether owned by an individual, a partnership or a corporation, may also file a lawsuit in small claims.

When To Use The Small Claims Process?

If someone owes you money, and will not pay you or has your property and will not return it, you may be able to resolve the problem by taking your case to small claims. However, it is recommended that prior to considering filing a small claims suit, you should try to talk with the other person or send him a letter to attempt to reach a solution to your dispute. If your attempts to reach a satisfactory settlement with a person owing you money or property fail, then you should consider going to small claims.

* Have I tried all possible and/or reasonable means to reach a resolution to this problem?

* Do I have a valid legal claim against the other party?

* Do I have, or can I get, the necessary evidence I need to prove my claim in court?

* Is the amount of money or property in dispute $5,000 or less? (i.e., Is the small claims court the proper court to sue in?)

* Do I know the correct legal name and address of the other party?

If the answers to the above questions are all "yes", then you probably have a good basis for filing a small claims lawsuit.

An attorney could advise you on the validity of your claim as well as on what evidence you will need to prove your claim. Therefore, if you feel it is necessary to use an attorney, contact one. In most case you may ask the court to include the attorney's fees in the amount of the judgment if you win the case. You should ask the attorney about this also. If you want to talk with an attorney but do not know one, you should contact the local bar association of The Florida Bar's free lawyer referral service at their toll free number 800-342-8011 for information. If you want an attorney but cannot afford one, call the local Legal Aid Service to see if you might qualify for free legal service.

Where To File Your Case

If you feel you are prepared to file a lawsuit, you should go to or contact the Clerk of Court in any one of the following counties:

* the county where the defendant (the person you want to sue) lives; or

* the county where the dispute or event which gave rise to the lawsuit (called the cause of action); or

* the county where the property in dispute is located; or

* if the case involves a secured promissory note, the county where the payment is received. 

If you do not file your lawsuit in one of these counties, the defendant could request the court to move the trial (called change of venue) to one of the appropriate counties. If the defendant does request a change of venue, a judge would decide whether or not to allow the trial to be moved.

If you have any special problems in deciding which county is appropriate, contact the Clerk's Office for assistance.

How To File Your Small Claims Suit

All lawsuits are begun by filling out a complaint form, called a "Statement of Claim", at the clerk's office. The clerk, at your request, will assist you in preparing the Statement of Claim and any other documents which you may be required to file to start the lawsuit. On the Statement of Claim you have to provide information in a clear and concise way concerning what the case is all about and how much you are suing for.

At the time you file the Statement of Claim form you must have the proper name and address of the party you are suing. Additionally, if the claim is based upon a written document(s) (such as a promissory note, sales contract, lease, repair bill, etc.), you must have copies of it to attach to the Statement of Claim.

You will have to pay the court clerk a filing fee when you file the lawsuit. The amount of the filing fee is based upon the amount of your lawsuit.

Procedures

After you have completed the Statement of Claim form, the next step is to have the defendant officially notified that a lawsuit has been filed against him. This notification procedure is called "Service of Process". The Statement of Claim is attached to a "Notice to Appear" form (a summons) and these papers are sent to the defendant. This can be accomplished in one of two ways.

One method of service of process is by mail. you can have the clerk send the lawsuit papers to the defendant by registered mail with a return receipt requested so that delivery is restricted to the defendant only.

There is a fee that you must pay the clerk if you want service by mail. Again, if you win your case, you may recover your court costs from the losing party.

If mail service is not desirable or if it proves to be unsuccessful, you may want to pay the Sheriff's' Office to attempt personal service. This means the sheriff will try to locate the defendant and deliver suit papers to him or at his home for a specific fee. If the defendant lives in another county, you can get the sheriff of that county to attempt service for you. Try and find someone whose taken CPA exam classes before.

In the event that mail service and/or sheriff's service proves to be unsuccessful and you still want to try to serve notice on the defendant, contact the Clerk's Office about other options that might be available to you.

Notice To Appear

You should, at the time you file your small claims lawsuit, receive a notice of the date, time and place the "pretrial hearing" will be held. The pretrial hearing (sometimes called a pretrial conference) is not a final hearing or trial. The purpose of a pretrial hearing is to determine the real issues in dispute.

If the defendant fails to appear at the pretrial hearing, the court will enter a default against him, after it is shown to the judge that the suit was filed in the proper county and the defendant was legally notified. A final judgment will be entered by the court against the defendant who defaulted, if the judge feels there is sufficient evidence to show that damages claimed in the lawsuit are accurate.

If the defendant does appear at the pretrial hearing and admits he owes you the money or property, the case could be settled. If the defendant needs time to pay you and you agree to the terms, the court may enter a stipulation. The stipulation will spell out the terms and conditions for settling the case.

If the defendant appears at the pretrial hearing and denies the claim, the judge will ask him why he does not feel he owes the money or property. If the defendant does not have a valid legal defense or reason for not owing the money, the judge will tell him and a judgment could be entered against him at this point. If the defendant does appear to have a legal or factual defense, the judge will order the parties to mediation. This takes usually place at the courthouse at the time of the pretrial hearing with volunteer mediators. If the case does settle, the terms of the settlment agreement will be set out by the mediator and signed by the parties and filed. If the case does not settle at the mediation conference, the clerk will set the case for trial. The judge will need to know the number of witnesses who will testify to know how long the trial will take so that enough time will be set aside for the judge to listen to all of the witnesses. If the parties are going to testify they will need to include themselves as witnesses.

What Will Happen At The Trial

You should be present and prepared to present your case at the time and date set for your final hearing (trial). You should have with you all of the evidence you are going to present at the trial. This includes all papers and all witnesses you intend to call at trial. If you are not sure that a witness will appear for your trial you should have that witness subpoenaed. If you do not subpoena the witness and the witness does not appear at the trial, the judge will require you to have the trial without that witness. The judge will not let you come back later with more witnesses or more papers after the trial.

At the trial the judge will ask you and the defendant to tell the facts of your case and to go through all the evidence and proof, including having your witnesses testify, if you have witnesses. Then the judge will decide who wins. He may or may not ask questions of each party and the witnesses after they tell their side of the story. Generally speaking, the small claims trial is informal and the judge will simply try to get all of the facts he needs from the parties to make a decision.

There are some general suggestions on how to conduct yourself during the trial:

* First of all--be on time. If you do not show up on time and the judge has already called your case, it might be dismissed or if you are the defendant, the judge might enter a judgment against you.

* When presenting your case before the judge, stick to the issues in dispute and avoid being long-winded.

* Be polite and courteous at all times. Do not interrupt the judge, the defendant or any of the witnesses at any time. There should be no shouting or name-calling during the trial.

* If you do not understand something during the trial, ask the judge when it is your turn to speak.

* Offers to compromise or settle the dispute during the trial may be made by the defendant or suggested by the judge. Do not quickly turn down offers to settle. Think about them. Sometimes it may be in your best interest to accept a settlement.

At the end of the trial the judge will normally announce his/her decision. However, sometimes the judge will want to take additional time to review the evidence or research case law before he enters a final judgment. This is called taking the case "under advisement". When this occurs, you will receive a copy of the final judgment in the mail after the judge makes his decision.

If either party is unhappy with the court's decision, they can file a written "motion for a new hearing" with the court. This must be done within ten (10) days after the judgment is rendered. The court will rule on the motion by deciding whether or not there are grounds for a new hearing.

An unsatisfied party also has the right to appeal a judgment to the circuit court. However, it should be noted that the procedures for appealing a judgment are often very detailed and complex; therefore, an attorney should always be consulted if an appeal is contemplated.

Conclusion

Along with all of the specific information, guidelines and suggestions presented in this handbook, two general themes were intended:

* Know your limitations so that you do not get in over your head, and above all

* Use good, sound judgment.

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