When we initially think of court hearings and trials, we commonly picture lengthy-time commitments, complicated procedures, and spending big money. However, taking a dispute to small claims court is a more straightforward process and is much less costly. I have often wondered this: if a significant benefit of small claims court is to help save money, should you hire a lawyer for small claims court? I did some research to find the answer. Keep reading to uncover what I learned!
Small claims courts hear cases involving low dollar amounts of value; limits typically range from $3,000 to $15,000. Most people prefer small claims court over taking a case to a big trial because it is much less expensive, and the process itself is less complicated. However, sometimes organizing or presenting one’s evidence can become cumbersome, and a lawyer’s council may prove beneficial. Whether an attorney can be present in small claims court with you during the hearing varies by location. As long as you are the one doing the filing and presenting, an attorney can provide advice outside of the courtroom, either way.
Are additional questions still weighing on your mind? Want to know more about small claims court and if it could be beneficial to hire a lawyer during this time? Read on for all that you want to know on the topic.
What is a Small Claims Court?
Small claims courts have limited jurisdiction to hear civil cases between two parties (or litigants). The process is more straightforward to navigate and is much less expensive than a full trial in court. Small claims courts can hear civil cases such as:
- breach of contracts (for example, when a builder never got that office added on)
- personal injury claims (such as a dog bite)
- debt collection (i.e., repayment of the money the neighbor borrowed to take his dog to the emergency vet after being hit by a car)
- professional negligence claims
Some states will also permit claims of false arrest, eviction, restitution, and slander to be filed within a small claims court. On the other hand, small claims courts will not hear family law cases, bankruptcy cases, probate, or serious personal injury claims. If you have ever been through one of these cases, you completely understand why. They are rarely direct or uncomplicated!
The first step in the process is that the plaintiff pays a filing fee to the small claims court clerk to open the case. This amount can be as little as $20 and range up to $200, depending on the location.
A server (or an alternative means) will notify the other party of the hearing and the claim filed against them.
Before the court appearance, it is necessary for both the plaintiff and defendant to prepare a statement, gather evidence, decide the order of evidence presentation, and how they will present the information during the hearing. Remember, the more applicable and valid proof that you can collect, the better it is for you! There would be nothing worse than the judge requesting a particular document, and that happened to be the one you decided to leave out. Evidence is the foundation of your entire case, so it’s a pretty (ok, a MAJOR) big deal, and everyone filing a claim in small claims court should take it seriously!
20-70 days after initially opening a claim (the clerk assigns the date when filing the documents), the judge will hear your case in the courtroom. A case in small claims court is an informal process, and at this time, either party may present any evidence or arguments relevant to the case.
Some evidence to include are contracts, financial statements, or relevant photographs. Be sure to have multiple copies of everything you are including, and quickly get to the point when presenting what you have. That means no rambling, even though you are nervous! Maybe this is where the whole practicing in front of a mirror idea would be useful!
At the hearing, the judge will listen to both sides, consider the evidence presented, and make a verdict.
The process seems simple enough, so should you still hire a lawyer?
Should You Hire a Lawyer for Small Claims Court?
Many people decide to represent themselves in small claims court and figure out what they need and how to go about it independently without an attorney’s help. How substantial your evidence, and your ability to present it, will make a significant impact on the hearing’s outcome. Can you shoulder that weight?
Hiring a lawyer may defeat the benefit of small claims court being forthright and economical. Many states in the United States (such as California or Michigan) do not generally allow parties to have a lawyer representing them in the initial small claims court trial. If the case goes to trial and then is permitted an appeal within a certain number of days, both parties may choose a lawyer to represent them during the appeal. Other states will allow it or make exceptions, but they may have some additional rules and specific restrictions. It wouldn’t hurt to research your local regulations or even ask at the court when filing the claim.
If you choose to represent yourself, you will unquestionably keep costs down. A few disadvantages are that all of the preparation requires you to invest a large quantity of time, so it may take longer than it would with an attorney’s help, and it leaves more room for errors. However, only you can decide which path is the best option for your situation.
If one party decides to move forward with employing legal counsel, then it would be unfair for one side to have this advantage and not the other. In this situation, you will usually be advised by the court to hire a lawyer for representation.
Even if you can’t have an attorney with you during the hearing, you can still seek help from an attorney outside of the courtroom! Let’s see what the attorneys can assist with if that is the route you end up choosing!
If You Decide to Hire a Lawyer for Small Claims Court
If you decide that you do not favor the idea of the entire case depending on you alone, a lawyer can usually help. Keep in mind the cost of hiring an attorney versus the value of the claim you are filing and make the first does not surpass the latter. Some attorneys accept hourly payments, which can be useful if it doesn’t take very long to do the work. Others may offer counsel or assistance on a contingency basis. Even if not permitted to be represented by an attorney in the courtroom for the hearing itself, a lawyer can often offer advice in advance or even help prepare for the claim’s hearing.
A free consultation with an attorney can prove very advantageous since you can present your case, any evidence that you possess, and seek the attorney’s opinion on the entire matter. They can tell you how strong they feel your case is, how they think the evidence will hold up in trial, and advise you on any weak possible breaking points that you may not have taken into consideration. They can work with you to improve or strengthen the case, inform you of the process of admitting evidence to the court, and help in knowing what is allowed and what isn’t or any exceptions that the judge could make.
Ultimately it is a decision that only you can make, but hiring an attorney can offer peace of mind and ensure that you aren’t missing any critical detail when filing or presenting your case in small claims court.
Conclusion – Should You Hire a Lawyer for Small Claims Court?
You cannot solve every dispute without assistance. It is often best to take the ongoing issue to small claims court to get it resolved in the quickest way possible. Small claims courts are less expensive than full trials, and the process is much more straightforward. Small claims courts hear simple civil cases below a certain amount of monetary value, all of which vary by location.
Some types of acceptable claims include breach of contract (like a builder that you already paid, who never completed the project) or minor personal injuries, such as a dog bite. Should you hire a lawyer for small claims court? Some states do not allow an attorney to represent someone in the courtroom, but this also varies by location.
Even when a lawyer is not permitted to aid in representation during the hearing, they can still advise outside of the courtroom and even help you make sure you have built a solid case with all of the evidence you need.
Whether you decide to pursue building a small claims case without an attorney or you choose to represent yourself, you are the only one who can determine what option is ultimately best for you.
Just remember to check with your state regulations or local small claims court to follow their direction if you are ever unsure about what is acceptable or not. Gather all of the evidence that you possibly can, organize your information, present it to the judge, get to the point, and BAM! Hopefully, you will WIN your case, and either way, now you know a lot more about small claims court!
If you are on the fence about whether or not you should hire a lawyer for small claims court, we recommend first getting a free consultation from an experienced and reputable lawyer. If you are looking for a great lawyer in your area, we recommend this site where you will get matched with a top lawyer in your area who specializes in small claims.
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A creative writer from Arkansas with personal experience in many different career paths, including criminology and medical science. I always find my way back to writing as it is what I truly enjoy and have a passion for. I love having a voice and helping give a voice to others who may not be so fortunate. Quote that best describes me “she has that look of eyes that see things much too far, and of thoughts that wander off the edge of the world”.