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Small Claims Often Is the Real ‘People’s Court’

If you have a sticky dispute that involves a relatively small amount of money, small claims court is a fast and efficient way to settle it.

Indeed, most cases are decided within three months, experts note. And most litigants emerge satisfied--regardless of whether they win or lose. A survey conducted by the National Center for State Courts found that more than three-quarters of the small claims litigants felt the process was fair. And 61% were satisfied with the court’s decision, even though 50% of those surveyed had lost.

“Small claims court is a miracle--it works,” says Ralph Warner, author of “Everybody’s Guide to Small Claims Court” and publisher of Nolo Press in Oakland. “It is the only window in the court system where the average person can get access and justice.”

What is small claims court and what makes it so appealing?

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Small claims courts are usually divisions of state or municipal court systems that agree to hear fairly small financial disputes.

Common types of cases heard in these courts include disputes between landlords and tenants over security deposits and customers’ disputes with dry cleaners, car mechanics and appliance repair people.

The maximum size of small claims actions is determined by both states and counties. In California, you can sue for as much as $5,000; elsewhere, limits range from $1,000 to $15,000. The appeal of these courts boils down to three things: They’re swift, inexpensive and fairly simple.

In most states, small claims cases are heard within two months after papers are filed. In other civil courts, you may have to wait between two and four years to have your case heard.

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Plaintiffs can file their cases on their own, without the help of an attorney. Court costs boil down to filing fees that generally range between $5 and $20.

If you need help filing, some courts--such as those operating in California--offer small claims advisers who can assist you with the paperwork and give tips on what information and documentation you should have when you go to court.

There is little ceremony involved in these cases once they’re heard. Individuals simply stand at opposing podiums in front of a judge, state what happened and how much money they believe is owed them--or why they think they’re not obligated to pay. A judgment is usually rendered on the spot.

But the very swiftness that makes this process appealing also creates risks for those who are unprepared in court. You are expected to appear with all the information and documentation--receipts, invoices, photographs, etc.--necessary to prove your case. If you don’t, you’re likely to lose. And in many states, your ability to appeal a small claims judgment is limited.

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“If somebody says you owe them money and you don’t bring in the canceled checks that prove you’ve paid it, you’re going to lose,” says John A. Goerdt, senior staff attorney with the National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg, Va.

Small Claims Tips

What are the rules in California’s small claims courts? Here are some key points excerpted from “Everybody’s Guide to Small Claims Court” by Ralph Warner of Nolo Press:

* Dollar limit: $5,000, and a plaintiff cannot file claims of more than $2,500 more than twice a year; $1,500 limit for suits involving surety companies.

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* Attorneys: Not allowed, except when representing themselves.

* Appeals: Allowed for defendant (or plaintiff who loses a counterclaim) within 20 days.

* Note: Interpreters and small claims advisers may be available.


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