Small claims courts are designed to streamline the legal process in order to enable litigants to reach a speedy and inexpensive conclusion to their disputes.  However, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a royal pain in the ass.  Before determining whether to seek justice against someone who wronged you, first ask yourself the following questions:

1.  Are you seeking justice, or revenge?   If you’ve suffered genuine monetary harm by another person’s act, then you should definitely consider pursuing a claim in small claims court.  However, if the monetary loss is minimal, ask yourself whether your primary motivation is to get back at the person who wronged you.  If you’re out $100 or less, will the time and effort be worth it, even if you win?

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2.  Is the defendant judgment proof?  If the defendant owes you money and refuses to pay, he must have a reason.  If the reason is that he doesn’t have the money, then collecting on the judgment you might eventually be awarded will not be easy.  After all, you can’t squeeze blood from a turnip.   A person (or company) against whom a judgment cannot be collected due to a lack of assets is known as “judgment proof.”  If the defendant has declared bankruptcy, or is the subject of a federal or state tax collection effort, that person is known as “really judgment proof.”  You may have a slam-dunk case, but if the defendant is judgment proof, the piece of paper the court awards you will be virtually worthless.

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3.  Do you have the time?  Winning in court requires preparation.  Lots of preparation.  The more you prepare, the more likely you are to win.  Don’t even think about going to court unless you’ve spent at least six to eight hours researching the law, gathering evidence, and preparing your arguments.  The trial itself will likely take an entire day, in light of the fact that the court will be hearing 10 or more cases on the same day.

4.  Is there any other way?  Have you tried approaching the person you’re considering suing to see whether you can reach an amicable solution?  Are you willing to take less than what you feel you’re owed in order to avoid the hassle?

One thing to keep in mind- the small claims court encourages litigants to settle their differences before the trial.  If you bring a lawsuit, in many cases on the day of the trial, the bailiff (or other court representative) will ask you and the defendant to try and work out your differences before the scheduled time of the hearing.  At that point, the defendant knows that you’re serious, and (depending on the strength of your case), may be more willing to settle.  Likewise, you will know that the defendant is serious about his or her chances, which will might make you more willing to settle than you were the day before, when you weren’t even sure that the defendant would show up.


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