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LEGAL MATTERS: What is Small Claims Court and When is it Best to Use it?

By Kathleen G. Moriarty, Peters & Moriarty, Attorneys and Counselors of Law

 Legal Matters is a regular column intended to address general legal concerns. Since every client walks in the door with a different set of circumstances, you should not rely on this column to provide specific legal advice. If you are in need of specific legal advice, please consult with an attorney; he or she will provide advice that is unique and tailored to your legal needs.

The small claims court system is a very efficient way to resolve issues where the maximum relief sought is $5,000 in cities and $3,000 in towns and villages. Filing fees are minimal, and the system is designed to eliminate the need for attorneys. Thus, the cost of utilizing the small claims system is very low.

To file a complaint in small claims court, the complainant must be at least 18 years of age. He should visit his local court clerk to fill out a complaint, including a brief statement of the facts supporting his claim. The filing fee ranges from $15-$20, usually depending on how much the complainant is seeking in damages. A trial date will be assigned at this time.

Generally, if a complainant is bringing an action in a town or village court, he may only file a complaint against a person that resides in that municipality or a business whose primary business location is in that municipality. A city’s small claims court typically has jurisdiction over any defendant who resides in the city’s county.

Most small claims courts send the notice of claim to the defendant — by both certified mail and regular first-class mail. The notice of claim gives the defendant the date of trial, the complainant’s brief statement on which his case is based, and the amount of money sought. A non-party to the action may also personally deliver the notice to defendant. Complainant should check with the court to determine what happens if defendant is not able to be served (notices are returned as undeliverable).

Defendant will have the opportunity to file a counterclaim (for an amount up to the maximum allowed to complainant), and he must formalize this by filing his counterclaim with the court within five days of receiving complainant’s notice of claim. Both claims will be tried on the trial date.

Trials at small claims court are informal. Each party is allowed to present documentation (invoices, cashed checks, contracts, etc.) that supports his case, and the judge or hearing officer may ask questions to obtain further information or opinions.

Adjournments are discouraged, but each party is usually allowed one adjournment depending on the circumstances of the case and reasons for the requested adjournment. The case of complainant who fails to appear at trial may be dismissed; similarly, a default judgment may be entered against a defendant who fails to show for trial without an adjournment having been requested and granted.

Any person considering a small claims action should contact an attorney to discuss the possibilities, but most attorneys favor a resolution through small claims court if the circumstances warrant it. Judicial and financial efficiency is preferable.

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