Even a miniscule debt can become disputed and contentious when someone can't pay it, which is why states establish small claims courts. These courts allow individuals to resolve grievances that are less complicated, but still important to the parties involved. Delaware offers residents this opportunity through its Justice of the Peace Court, a system where appointed magistrates hear cases in each of the state's three counties.
What Types Of Cases Are Small Claims?
Justice of the peace claims are limited to less than $15,000 in damages. Personal injury allegations are not permitted. Disputes that can be litigated in this court include landlord-tenant disagreements, debt recovery, property damage and return of personal property.
Where Should The Claim Commence?
Claims can be initiated in the complainant's county of residence, in the county where the defendant resides or conducts business, or in the county where the incident occurred. Complainants requesting court costs or attorney's fees must file in the defendant's county of residence. A complainant or defendant can be an individual, a partnership, or a corporation.
The complainant is allowed three years after the incident to file an action if the dispute involves a contract. He has two years if the issue involves property damage. There is a filing fee, but the court can waive it for those who cannot afford to pay.
What Is The Process For Filing A Complaint?
The state created interactive forms for common complaints, and paper forms are available at each Justice of Peace Court clerk's office as well. Gather the information you will need before filing, such as the person or business's legal name and address. Create a concise summary of the situation. The court will attempt to serve the complaint on state residents, but plaintiffs must make arrangements for serving out-of-state defendants. A defendant has 15 days to respond after receiving the complaint. Defendants may file counterclaims contending that the plaintiff should be declared at fault, or cross-claims blaming another party.
Attending The Hearing
In civil cases, the burden of proof is on the plaintiff. This means he or she must produce evidence that shows the allegations are factual. Several forms of evidence are acceptable:
- Receipts or cancelled checks proving payment
- Relevant photographs of damaged property
- Copies of correspondence between parties
- Legal documentation such as leases, contracts or other agreements
- Accident or incident reports from law enforcement agencies
- Repair estimates if property damage is alleged
Be prepared to provide a succinct outline of the allegations and to cite relevant law during the hearing. Tell your witnesses the trial date in advance. Issue subpoenas, which are official orders to appear in court, if witnesses indicate they are unwilling to appear voluntarily. When your hearing date arrives, dress appropriately. Parties wearing improper attire such as T-shirts with profanity, revealing tops, or head coverings will be denied entry to the courthouse. After both sides present evidence and call their witnesses, the magistrate will issue a ruling and the losing party has 15 days to appeal the verdict to the Court of Common Pleas.
Collecting The Debt
After the appeal period has elapsed and if satisfactory arrangements have not already been made, the plaintiff can ask the court for an order requiring the defendant to pay. The plaintiff can ask to have the defendant's wages or financial accounts garnished if the defendant continues to refuse to pay.
This article is a general overview of the small claims system. Those with specific questions should consult a local attorney. Although attorneys are not required in Delaware's Justice of the Peace Court, legal advice can be helpful both in preparing your case and presenting it.