Small-claims courts have limited jurisdiction to 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, Scotland, South Africa, Hong Kong, England and Wales and the United States.
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 landlords and tenants, 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 may or may not be allowed to reduce a claim to fit the requirements of this venue. In some states, Texas for example, the concept of "court shopping" is strictly forbidden. Court shopping involves a plaintiff who seeks to reduce the amount of damages claimed in order to fit a trial into a court that would otherwise not have jurisdiction. For example, if a plaintiff asserts damages of $15,000 in hopes of winning an award of $10,000 in small-claims court, the court will dismiss the case (without prejudice) because the court does not have jurisdiction to hear cases in which the asserted damages exceed the court's maximum amount. Thus, even if the plaintiff is willing to accept less than the full amount, the case cannot be brought to small-claims court. To bring the case to small-claims court, the plaintiff must prove that the actual damages were within the court's jurisdiction. 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 of 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. Even though these rules are relaxed, they still apply to some degree. In some jurisdictions, corporations must still be represented by a lawyer in small-claims court. Expensive court procedures such as interrogatories 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 judgement may be entered in favor 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. (The state of Washington is one exception; it allows either party to demand a jury trial.) 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. The judgement may be collected through wage garnishment and liens.
Most courts encourage parties with disputes to seek alternative dispute resolution, if possible, before filing 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.
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.
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.
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 The People's Court, Judge Judy and Judge Joe Brown.
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 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.
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.
England and Wales have dedicated small claims courts, called County Courts and they operate in 3 tiers called "Tracks".
A claim up to £5000.00 is allocated to the Small Claims Track.
£5001 - £15000 is allocated to The Fast Track.
£15001 - £50000 is allocated to the Multi Track.
These cases are heard by District Judges or Circuit Judges and not by jury.