What You Should Know about Small Claims Court

Decorative Scales of Justice in the CourtroomPeople don’t always deliver on their word.  Even though you were sure to get a rock-solid contract, people disappear or a business may just plain refuse to pay. This bad behavior leads many people straight to the courtroom.  If the contract wasn’t worth a large sum to begin with, however, you may wonder, is it really worth the hassle to pursue legal action?

You may think that if you were only scammed out of a small amount of money, then pursuing legal action isn’t worth the work of initiating and following through with a lawsuit.  After all, there will be papers to file and courtroom appearances to make.  But before you make this decision, you should know what to expect in small claims court.

Here are five truths to consider before deciding whether or not it is worth the hassle to pursue a case in small claims court.

1)   In New York City, the maximum you can sue for in small claims is $5,000.  If you want to collect more than $5,000 the ease that Small Claims can often provide is not an option.

2)  You don’t need a lawyer.  New York City’s Small Claims Court is surprisingly easy to navigate without legal assistance.  The majority of claimants and defendants in small claims court don’t have attorneys. The judge and the court staff are used to dealing with people without legal backgrounds.  The judge makes an effort to speak in plain language.  You can initiate an action simply by filling out a form with the clerk.  These efforts can make a small claims case much easier to manage while going about your daily business.

3)   You can choose between a daytime or evening court time. Many people choose the evening time because they don’t want to miss work.  This can be a good call, but on the evening you are set to appear be prepared to sit in the courtroom until 10 or 11 at night, it can often take some time for the court to dispose of your case.

4)   You should be willing and prepared to settle.  Small claims courts encourage settlement.  After you serve the other party he or she may suggest a settlement.  This can be a very good thing because if you settle, you don’t have to worry about chasing the money down later, which can be the most difficult part of the process (see number 5 below).

5)  You should have a plan to collect the money.  Unfortunately, many people refuse to pay even after a judge has ordered that they must.  For a small claims case to be worth your time, you need to know how you will get the money if the other party still refuses to pay after a court order.  This can be as simple as knowing where the delinquent party banks, but it can sometimes be more complicated.  Small claims is probably not worth the hassle if you don’t have at least some idea of how you might get paid in the end.  If you are going to pursue the action, make sure you have a payment plan in mind.

Have you ever brought a case to small claims court?  Did you find the process hard to navigate?  What do you wish you had known before jumping in? I would love to hear from you!

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