In California, the small claims court is a special court where disputes are quickly and inexpensively resolved. The rules are simple and the trial, which is also referred to as the hearing, is informal.
The person, business or public entity that files a claim to sue another is called the plaintiff. The person, business or public entity that is sued is called the defendant. Generally, attorneys aren't allowed at your hearing. However, you may have an attorney advise and assist you before or after the hearing.
Individuals or Entities May Sue
An individual can sue another individual, business or public entity, but may not file a claim against a federal agency. A business can sue an individual, business or public entity. However, an assignee, which is a person or business that sues on behalf of another such as a collection agency, can't sue in small claims court.
In California, any mentally competent person who is at least 18 years old or an emancipated child may sue in small claims court. An emancipated child is one who is less than 18 years old and no longer controlled by parents or guardians. A minor becomes emancipated by enlisting in the military, getting married or getting a court order from a judge.
If you aren't mentally competent or under 18 years old and not emancipated, a judge must appoint an adult called a guardian ad litem to represent you in small claims court. A guardian ad litem is a person who is appointed to represent your interests.
An individual can't ask for more than $7,500 in a claim. Corporations, partnerships, unincorporated associations, governmental bodies and other legal entities can't ask for more than $5,000. You can file as many claims as you want for up to $2,500 each. If your claims are for more than $2,500, you can only file two claims in a calendar year.
Small claims courts can order a defendant to do something, as long as a claim for money is also part of the lawsuit. For example, if you are suing to get back the power saw you loaned to a neighbor, the court can order the return of the saw or payment for the saw if it isn't returned.
Cases Suitable for Small Claims Court
Many different kinds of cases go to small claims court. The most common are:
- Car accidents
- Property damage
- Landlord/tenant disputes
Some examples of specific types of disputes that might be resolved in small claims court are when:
- A landlord refuses to return your security deposit
- Someone damages your car but refuses to pay for its repair
- A store refuses to fix or replace a new product you purchased
- Your tenant caused damage to rental property greater than the amount of the security deposit but refuses to pay
- You were defrauded in the purchase of a car and want to cancel the purchase and get back the amount of your down payment
- You lent money to a friend but your friend won't pay you back
In most small claims courts, cases are heard within 30-40 days after filing the plaintiff's claim, but they are never set for earlier than 20 days or more than 70 days after the claim is filed. Most cases are heard on weekdays, but some courts also schedule sessions during the evenings and on Saturdays.
Small Claims Advisers
You can get more information from small claims advisers, who provide free individual personal advisory services to small claims disputants. The small claims advisory services of all counties are listed on the County-Specific Court Information page of the California Courts Self-Help Center.
Small Claims Court Procedural Rules
Small claims court procedural rules are summarized and explained in a publication entitled Consumer Law Sourcebook: Small Claims Court Laws & Procedures. You can find a copy to print by visiting the Web site of the Department of Consumer Affairs.
Court forms can be viewed and printed at California Courts Self-Help Center Small Claims Forms.
If you're the plaintiff, reviewing the following court forms might be helpful:
- Information for the Small Claims Plaintiff - Form SC-150
- Plaintiff's Claim and Order to Go to Small Claims Court - Form SC-100
If you are the defendant, reviewing the following court forms might be helpful:
- Information for the Defendant - page 4 of Form SC-100
- Defendant's Claim and Order to Go to Small Claims Court - Form SC-120
Questions for Your Attorney
- Can an attorney assist me if I am going to small claims court?
- Can an attorney appear with me in small claims court?
- Can I sue a federal agency in small claims court?