small-debts court

Small claims court

Small claims courts are courts of limited jurisdiction that hear civil cases between private litigants. Courts authorized to try small claims may also have other judicial functions, and the name by which such a court is known varies by jurisdiction: it may be known by such names as county court or magistrate's court. Small claims courts can be found in Australia, Canada, Ireland, Israel, New Zealand, South Africa, Hong Kong and the United States. England and Wales has no dedicated small claims court, but cases in the county court may be allocated by the judge to what is called the small claims track which behaves in a similar way.

Purpose and operation

The business of small claims courts typically encompasses small private disputes in which large amounts of money are not at stake, usually a maximum of $5,000 in most U.S. states. The routine collection of small debts forms a large portion of the cases brought to small claims courts, as well as evictions and other disputes between landlord and tenant unless the jurisdiction is already covered by a tenancy board.

Typically, a small claims court will have a maximum monetary limit to the amount of judgments it can award; these limits vary. Upper limits are set in the thousands of dollars/pounds. By suing in a small claims court, the plaintiff typically waives any right to claim more than the court can award. The plaintiff is allowed to reduce a claim to fit the requirements of this venue. In some jurisdictions, a party who loses in a small claims court is entitled to a trial de novo in a court of more general jurisdiction and with more formal procedures.

The rules of civil procedure and sometimes evidence are typically altered and simplified in order to make the procedures economical: one guiding principle usually operating in these courts is that individuals ought to be able to conduct their own cases and represent themselves without recourse to a lawyer. In some jurisdictions, corporations must still appear represented by a lawyer in small claims court. Expensive court procedures such as interogatories and depositions are usually not allowed in small claims court. Practically, all matters filed in small claims court are set for trial. Under some court rules should the defendant not show up at trial and not have requested postponement, a default judgment may be entered in favour of the plaintiff.

Trial by jury is seldom or never conducted in small claims courts; it is typically excluded by the statute establishing the court. Similarly, equitable remedies such as injunctions, including protective orders, are seldom available from small claims courts.

Separate family courts may exist to hear simple cases in family law. For reasons having more to do with history than with the sort of case typically heard by a small claims court, most US states do not allow domestic relations disputes to be heard in small claims court.

Winning in small claims court does not automatically ensure payment in recompense of a plaintiff's damages. This may be relatively easy, in the case of a dispute against an insured party, or extremely difficult in the case of an uncooperative, transient or indigent defendant. You can collect the judgement by wage garnishment and liens

Most courts encourage parties with disputes to seek alternative means of resolving disputes, if possible, before filing for suit. For example, the Superior Court of Santa Clara provides guidelines for resolving disputes out of court Additionally, the parties can both agree on a third party to arbitrate their dispute outside of court.

Small claims courts in the United States

The movement to establish small claims courts typically began in the early 1960s, when Justice of the Peace courts were increasingly being seen as obsolete, and it was felt to be desirable to have such a court to allow people to represent themselves without legal counsel. In New York State the establishment of small claims courts was in response to the findings of Governor Thomas E. Dewey's Tweed Commission on the reorganization of the state judiciary, which issued its findings in 1958. Since then, the movement to establish small claims courts has led to their establishment in most U.S. states. There is no equivalent to a small claims court in the U.S. federal court system, although certain types of civil claims are routinely referred to U.S. magistrates for preliminary handling.


Some jurisdictions offer classes in small claims court procedures. As such courts are open to the public, attendance at a few sessions may be useful to a person involved in a case, whether as plaintiff or defendant.

External links by state

There may be enough similarities between states that useful information may be obtained, but should not be relied upon. Your local Superior Court or similar judicial entity should be consulted for amount limits, filing procedures, and time limits.

Small claims court on TV

Over the years several small claims court television shows have appeared on network daytime television, but these are not truly courts of law, even though they attempt to give that appearance; they are merely forms of arbitration. Such shows include Judge Judy and Judge Joe Brown.

Small claims courts in Canada

All provinces have procedures for small claims in Canada. In general, there are two different models. In most provinces, small claims courts operate independently of the superior courts (as in British Columbia, Alberta, and New Brunswick). In other jurisdictions, the small claims courts are a branch or division of the superior courts. For instance, in Ontario the Small Claims Court is a branch of the Superior Court of Justice, and in Manitoba the Small Claims Court is under the jurisdiction of the Court of Queen's Bench.

Small claims cases are heard by judges of the Provincial Court in BC, Alberta, and Saskatchewan, by judges or deputy-judges of the Superior Court of Justice in Ontario, and by Hearing Officers in Manitoba.

The small claims courts are meant to be an easier and less expensive way to resolve disputes, than in the higher courts. Small Claims Court procedure is regulated both by provincial legislation and rules in most provinces. Small claims procedure is simplified with no strict pleadings requirements, no formal discovery process and parties costs may be limited.

There is a wide range of monetary jurisdiction for small claims courts in Canada. Subject to various restrictions:

  • in Alberta, the Provincial Court – Civil (Small Claims Court)hears civil claims up to $25,000;
  • in Nova Scotia, the maximum claim that may be recovered in the Small Claims Court cannot exceed $25,000;
  • in British Columbia, the maximum claim that may be recovered in the Small Claims Division of the Provincial Court is $25,000;
  • in Saskatchewan, claims within the Civil Division of the Saskatchewan Provincial Court cannot exceed $15,000 in value;
  • in Ontario and Manitoba, Small Claims Courts adjudicate claims under $10,000;
  • the Small Claim Court of Quebec deals with claims that cannot exceed $7,000;
  • the Small Claims Court of New Brunswick deals with claims less than $6,000;
  • the Provincial Court of Newfoundland and Labrador hears civil claims up to $5,000.

In general, disputes involving title to land, slander, libel, bankruptcy, false imprisonment or malicious prosecution must be handled in a superior court and cannot be determined in small claims courts.

External links by province and territory

Small claims courts in Australia

Small claims courts in Australia are handled by the State system. The following links may be general links to the Department dealing with justice in the given State.

European small claims procedure

From 1 January 2009, there will be a European small claims procedure for cross-border claims under the Brussels regime with value up to 2,000 EUR.

See also

  • Allocation questionnaire - form used in English civil courts to decide whether to allocate a case to the small claims track


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