People have minor disputes every day. They range from a buyer not getting the goods or services he paid for, to a landlord refusing to return a tenant's security deposit. Often, because the amount of money involved is so small, it just doesn't make sense to pay an attorney to get your money.
This is where a small claims court can help. In New Hampshire, the small claims courts settle legal disputes that involve small amounts of money. The courts are designed to be easy to use, inexpensive, fast and a lot less formal than the other courts of the state.
Individuals or Businesses May Sue
Individuals, businesses and corporations can file suits and be sued in the small claims courts in New Hampshire. The person or business that files a small claims lawsuit is called the plaintiff. The person or business that is sued is called the defendant. If you're under 18 years old, your parent or legal guardian has to file the lawsuit for you (or "on your behalf"). Likewise, if the defendant is under 18, you need to name his parent or guardian as a defendant.
You file a small claims case in the appropriate district court, which usually is the district court of the county where the defendant lives, but there are some exceptions.
In New Hampshire, the most you can recover in small claims court is $5,000. If your claim is a little over $5,000, you may want to consider filing in small claims anyway and forget about recovering the full amount. It will be faster, easier and less expensive than filing suit in another court. If your claim is a lot more than $5,000, you may want to talk to attorney to see what your chances are of recovering the full amount in another court.
Cases Suitable for Small Claims Court
Many different kinds of cases go to small claims court. Some of the most common cases involve:
- Goods or services sold but not paid for or delivered
- Money loans
- Auto negligence
- Minor accidents
- Landlord/tenant disputes, like actions for refunds of security deposits and for unpaid or "back" rent
- Car repair disputes
- Property damage
There are several things you can't sue for in small claims court, including divorce and child custody, evicting tenants from your rental property and changing your legal name.
Statute of Limitations
The statute of limitations is how long you have to file a lawsuit after something happens. The time period is based upon the type of claim you have. For example, if you were injured in a car accident, you generally have three years from the date of the accident, or from the date you "discovered" your injuries, to file a "personal injury" lawsuit in New Hampshire. The time periods can be shorter or longer, depending on your case. So, to be safe, you should file your lawsuit as soon as possible.
You file a small claims case by completing a form called "Small Claim Complaint." This form tells the person you're suing why you're filing suit and what your damages are. The clerk of the district court has this and other forms you may need to get your case moving (or to defend yourself, if you're the defendant).
In New Hampshire, you may represent yourself in small claims court, or you may hire an attorney to do so. An attorney can give you advice about your suit and what evidence you'll need to win your case. In most instances, you may ask the court to include your attorney's fees in the amount of the judgment if you win the case.
The district court clerk may help you complete the Small Claims Complaint, like telling you whose name goes where and where you should sign. She can't, however, give you legal advice about your claim, such as whether the statute of limitations on your claim has expired. After your papers are filed, the clerk will send you a copy of the completed form. He'll also make sure that a copy of it is sent to (or "served on") the defendant.
The papers sent to the defendant will show a date by which he has to "answer" or your complaint, otherwise he may lose automatically. The court clerk will schedule a hearing after the defendant answers and he'll notify you both about the date and time of the hearing.
Trial or "Hearing"
Sometimes a case is settled before the "hearing" or trial, such as when the defendant pays what it owes you, for example. Other times your case may be heard by a mediator. He listens to you and the defendant, asks questions, and tries to get you both to reach an agreement. If neither of these happens in your case, a judge will hold a hearing and decide who wins. At the hearing, you, the defendant and all witnesses will be sworn in. You'll tell your side of the story first, and the defendant will get a turn. You'll each have a chance to ask each other question, as well as question any witnesses.
There are no jury trials in the New Hampshire small claims court. The exception is when you sue for more than $1,500 and the defendant demands a jury. If this happens, the case will be moved out of the small claims court and into the local superior court where it will be a much more complicated legal process for both parties.
The judgment is the decision given by the judge. After hearing the arguments of both parties, the judge may make an immediate decision, or she may need more time to think about the case. When this happens, you'll be notified by mail when the decision has been made.
If the judgment is in favor of the defendant, the case is over and you can't recover any money or damages. If the judgment is in your favor, it will specify how much the defendant must pay you. Both you and the defendant, however, have 30 days to appeal the decision, that is, ask that the case be looked again by a higher court.
Small Claims Court Procedural Rules
The Rules of the District Courts of the State of New Hampshire, and especially the "Rules for Small Claims Actions" within those rules, can tell you more about how the small claims process works.
Questions for Your Attorney
- I have a claim against a general contractor for $5,900. How much will you charge me to file suit against him in a court other than small claims court?
- My family and I moved out of a public school system and it won't give me a refund on administrative fees I paid at the beginning of the year for my son. Can I sue the school district in small claims court?
- If I hire you to go to small claims court, do I have to be there at trial, too?