During the Case
Overview of how small claims cases usually work:
- The person, business or government agency that wants to sue another person, business or government agency in small claims court fills out the Plaintiff’s Claim and Order to Go to Small Claims Court (Form SC-100). (Other forms may be needed as well.) This person who starts the case is called the Plaintiff.
- The plaintiff files the required forms with the court and pays the court filing fees. (An individual may have their fees excused based on income – forms are needed for this.)
- The plaintiff asks a person who is 18 or over and not part of the court case to deliver (serve) a copy of the filed court forms to the defendant. This may be done in several ways.
- The person who served the court forms completes a form that says he or she served the forms to the defendant in the proper way and on time. He or she gives the completed form to the plaintiff.
- The plaintiff files the “proof of service” form with the court.
- The defendant reviews the forms served and prepares for the hearing. The defendant DOES NOT have to file any forms with the court.
HOWEVER, if the defendant also has a claim against the person who filed the lawsuit (the plaintiff), he or she may file this claim in the same lawsuit. This helps to resolve all of the disagreements between the parties at the same time in front of the same judge.
- Normally, a hearing will be held and a judge will listen to both sides of the story and receive the evidence presented by both sides.
- The court's decision is usually mailed to both sides after the trial. The decision will be on a form called the Notice of Entry Judgment (Form SC-130).
If you want to sue a person, business or government agency in small claims court, it is your responsibility to make sure that you get, fill out, file, and serve the correct court forms.
Follow these steps one at a time and in order:
To start your small claims case, you need to get and fill out a:
- Plaintiff's Claim and ORDER to Go to Small Claims Court (Form SC-100)
See the instructions for this form.
This form tells the court and the person, business or government agency you want to sue about your claim. Contact the Small Claims Advisor in your area if you need help in deciding where to file your claim – or if you have other questions about your case. Find the Small Claims Advisor for your area.
You may also need to fill out other forms.
Parents filing a case for their child must also fill out an:
- Application and Order for Guardian ad Litem (Form CIV-010)
An attorney or client in a fee dispute must fill out an:
- Attorney Fee Dispute (Form SC-101)
Businesses must fill out a:
- Fictitious Business Name (Form SC-103)
And, where there is a special relationship, or a corporation, LLC or partnership is involved, a person wanting to appear in court for either the plaintiff or defendant must ask the court to allow them do so by filling out an:
- Authorization to Appear on Behalf of Party (Form SC-109)
NOTE 1: The person who files the first papers is called the "plaintiff", and is listed as the plaintiff on all court forms connected with this court case until a judgment has been made.
The other person or business is automatically called the "defendant", and will always be listed on the court forms in this way until a judgment has been made.
NOTE 2: Before you can file your papers, you have to have the proper legal name of the person or business you are suing, and know where you can find them.
If the defendant is a business or a corporation and you do not know the exact legal name, check with the state or local licensing agency, the county clerk’s office, or the Office of the Secretary of State, Corporation Status Unit. Learn more about how to name the defendant.
After you have filled out your form(s), you have to file them at the clerk's office at the courthouse.
After you have done Step 1 (get and fill in the court forms you need), then:
Make photocopies of the forms and all attachments – one copy for each of the named defendants and one for your files.
REMEMBER: If you are suing a government agency, you needed to first file an administrative claim. If you got a rejection letter from the agency and now want to sue it, you need to attach the agency’s rejection letter to your Plaintiff’s Claim (SC-100). This shows that you already have tried to solve this problem through the agency’s claim procedures.
Then file your court forms. This can be done in one of three ways:
- In person (By visiting the courthouse, handing the forms to the clerk yourself and paying the appropriate filing fee.)
- By mail (Make sure you include your filing fees. Note that this process can be slower than filing in person if you have made mistakes in completing the forms.)
- By hiring a forms filing service (For a fee, some companies will take your forms to the courthouse and make sure they are filed and that the filing fees are paid.)
NOTE: You may e-File small claims cases in many counties. Check on your court's website to see if this option is available.
You will have to pay a fee when you file these forms.
- You may pay by cash, check, or money order.
- Learn what the fee will be.
- If you have a very limited income, you can ask the judge to excuse the court fees and costs. This is called a "fee waiver." Find out if you qualify for a fee waiver.
Once the court clerk has your forms and filing fees, he or she will:
- Assign a case number. (You will always use this same case number when submitting forms and documents related to this court case or when calling a court clerk.)
- Stamp photocopies of all of the forms, and keep the originals of the Plaintiff’s Claim and other papers to put in the court file.
- Return copies of the forms and attachments to you.
You will keep one set of forms, and you will have the other set of forms given to the defendant(s). This is called “service of process” and there are very special rules about this.
California law requires that the defendant in your case be given formal notice that you have filed a claim against him or her in small claims court. This is called "service of process," and it is very important. In fact, the judge cannot make any decisions until the other person or business has been “properly served." Service lets the other party know:
- Who is suing them,
- Why you are suing them,
- What you are asking for,
- When and where the trial will be, and
- What they can do.
WHO can serve the court papers?
You can NOT serve the court papers yourself. Someone 18 or older (for example a friend, relative, the Sheriff or Marshal, or a professional process server) who is not involved in the case in any way must serve the court forms for you.
HOW are court forms served?
There are 3 ways to serve your filed Plaintiff’s Claim (Form SC-100):
- Personal service. (A person 18 or older who is not involved in this case takes copies of the forms and delivers them to the defendant him- or herself.)
- Substituted service. (A person 18 or older who is not involved in this case leaves copies of the forms at the place where the defendant lives or works. Then, the server mails another copy of the forms to the defendant at the same address where he or she left the papers.)
- Service by the court clerk using certified mail. (In some counties, for a fee, a court clerk will mail the forms to the defendant by certified mail. Usually, the post office will attempt to deliver the envelope 2 times. If the claim is returned to the court clerk undelivered, you will then have to do either personal service or substituted service.)
Find out how service is done.
WHAT Needs to Be Served?
The defendant must be served a copy of ALL of the forms filed with the court. This always will include at least:
- Plaintiff's Claim and ORDER to Go to Small Claims Court/Information for the Defendant (Small Claims) (Form SC-100)
NOTE: Do not serve fee waiver forms. These forms are only for the court.
WHO has to be served?
You must have the defendant served. If there is more than one defendant, you must have each person (even if they live together) or business partner (even if they share the same office) served separately.
NOTE: There are special service rules for some defendants. Learn what to do if you are suing:
NOTE: If the person, business, or public entity you have to serve is outside California, you may not be able to serve them at all. Ask your Small Claims Advisor for more information.
WHEN must you have the claim served?
It depends on how you have your claim served.
- For personal service: Have your claim served at least 15 days before the court date (or 20 days if the person, business, or public entity you're having served is located outside the county).
- For substituted service: Have your claim served at least 25 days before your court date (or 30 days if the person, business, or public entity you're serving is located outside the county).
After the papers have been served:
The person who serves the court forms must fill out a:
- Proof of Service (Form SC-104)
For substituted service, look for all sections dealing with this and fill them in.
Go to "Step 4" to learn what to do with the Proof of Service Form.
ALERT! Your case will be delayed if you do not properly serve the defendant, or if you do not file the "Proof of Service" with the court.
The judge cannot hear your court case until you have filed your court forms properly, given (served) copies of these forms to the person, business or government agency you sue, and then file a form that shows that those forms were served in the right way.
To prove to the court that you had the defendant served in the right way, your server has to fill out one copy of the following form for each person, business or government agency served.
- Proof of Service (Small Claims) (Form SC-104)
- Make one copy of each Proof of Service form and mail or take the original form(s), plus the copies, to the court clerk. The clerk will file and stamp all of the forms. The court will keep the original of each form, and will give the copies of these forms back to you.
- KEEP YOUR COPY OF EACH PROOF OF SERVICE IN A SAFE PLACE and take it to any court hearing that has been scheduled in this case.
NOTE: You have to file your Proof of Service (Form SC-104) with the court at least 5 “court days” before your hearing. (“Court days” are Monday through Friday. Court days do not include Saturday, Sunday, or holidays.)
Next, you should prepare for your hearing. To learn how to do this, go to the next topic in this list.
In court, small claims trial hearings may only last 10 to15 minutes. Since you will only have a few minutes in front of the judge, you will need to be organized. So start preparing for your day in court as soon as possible.
1. Plan what you are going to say.
Decide what your main points are. Try to think of what the other person might say and how you will answer. You can also talk to a small claims legal advisor or a lawyer before court.
How to tell your story in court:
Be quick and to the point, and stay calm. It is your job to PROVE your case. Here are some tips:
- The first thing you need to say is why you are there.
- Tell the judge how you were affected by what the other person did, and
- Why it is their fault.
- Also explain why it is not your fault.
- Say what happened, in the order it happened.
- Group facts together. For example: "From April to August, I took the car in 10 times and he didn't fix the brakes."
- Practice telling your story. If you can, practice in front of friends or family.
2. Arrange to bring any papers or items that support your story. These are called "evidence." Examples of evidence are:
- Estimates (bring 3, if possible)
- Diagrams that show how an accident happened
- Police reports
- The damaged object
Learn more about using things as evidence.
3. Arrange to bring witnesses who saw or heard what happened.
- Don't bring people unless you know they will support you.
- Witnesses who are not friends or relatives may be more effective in proving your case. When the only witnesses are your friends and relatives, they should testify and present themselves in a professional, objective and calm manner.
4. You may need to get a sworn, written statement from an expert on the subject in your case. For example, a mechanic who looked at your car could provide an estimate of property damage relating to an accident.
- To learn more about using people as evidence.
5. If you don't speak English well: Find out if the Court will provide an interpreter for you.
- Ask the Court if they can provide an interpreter as soon as you know your Court date.
- If the Court cannot provide an interpreter, arrange to bring someone to court with you who can interpret for you. You want the judge to understand you.
- You may ask the court to delay your hearing one time in order to obtain an interpreter.
REMEMBER: You can try to settle your case through mediation or other alternatives to the courts at any time.
Sometimes it is necessary for the court to make decisions about your case before the trial hearing. If you want the court to consider an issue and make a decision, file a motion.
A “motion” is a request you make to ask the court to consider an issue and make a decision about it. There are many types of motions.
Learn how to file most motions in small claims court.
There are 3 types of motions which are so common that they have their own forms.
- A motion to postpone the hearing
Some reasons to ask to postpone the case include:
- You were not able to serve the defendant on time.
- You have a claim (counterclaim) against the plaintiff and were not able to serve the plaintiff on time.
- A key witness cannot appear on the date set for the hearing
- A motion to amend your claim
Some reasons to change your claim include:
- You learned the correct name of the plaintiff or defendant after you filed your claim;
- You want to change what you asked for in your claim;
- You decided you don’t want to sue one of the parties anymore, or want to sue another party.
- The amount of the claim is more than you originally asked for.
- A motion to dismiss the case
Some reasons to dismiss (end) the case right away include:
- You named the wrong defendant;
- The case is in the wrong court (defendant usually files);
- The defendant has already paid you (can only be filed before the hearing by the plaintiff);
- The case was brought too late (defendant usually files).
NOTE: A copy of all motions must be served on the other side.
The court may or may not hold a hearing on your request. In any case, it will inform you in writing what it has decided.
In California, small claims hearings take place in a courtroom. These hearings are often very short (sometimes as little as 10 - 15 minutes), so you really need to plan ahead if you want to give the judge your information before he or she makes a decision. To get ready for your court hearing:
Know Your Own Case
- Read the court papers carefully. Understand what you asked for, or what the other side has asked for in their papers.
- Before your own hearing, summarize, organize and write down the key points you want to tell the judge. Try to make it as clear and simple as you can. Be ready to explain why the judge should approve (or not approve) each request. Practice speaking a few times - if you can, practice in front of friends or family.
- Make an outline listing your reasons for each request and how the other side responded. This will help you to speak to the judge if you get nervous in court.
- Be sure to focus on the reasons you are going to court, as stated in your claim. The judge cannot address issues that are not identified in the original paperwork filed to request the hearing. If you have other problems to resolve, you can schedule a separate hearing for that purpose.
- Get ready to bring copies of all of your paperwork with you to court, including:
- Copies of everything you've filed with the court concerning your case,
- Copies of everything that has been served on you in this case, and
- Any other paperwork that is related to your case.
- Also bring a copy of an documents you have filed recently to show the judge - just in case the paperwork did not make it into the file.
Find out Where to go and What These Cases are Like
- Learn how to be on time for all court dates. Look on a map and find out where the courthouse is. Learn the schedules of the buses that will get you to the courthouse, or figure out what roads would be best if driving. Learn where to park.
- It may be a good idea to go to the courthouse and observe another small claims hearing before going to yours so that you can get a better idea of what to expect.
NOTE: If you know ahead of time that you are unable to attend the hearing in person, there may be a possibility for you to arrange to participate by telephone. Call the court clerk in your county for information and to make the necessary arrangements.
- Find the court in your county.
Know What to do at Your Court Hearing
- Arrange for childcare for your children. Children are not permitted in the courtroom.
- Arrange for an interpreter if you will need one. You may use an adult friend or relative to interpret for you.
- Plan to dress for your court date as if going to a job interview. If you are coming from or going to work, your uniform or work clothes are fine. Make sure that you have made an effort to be neat, clean, and well groomed.
Check-in with the Bailiff or Clerk. The hearing will take place in a courtroom in front of a judge, commissioner, or temporary judge. There will also be a courtroom clerk and a bailiff. Usually other people waiting for their case to be heard will be present. Find out from the Bailiff how to check-in. In some cases, the Bailiff may have a list of who is there and in other cases they may call out everyone's name.
Opportunity for mediation. Before your case is called, you may have an opportunity to speak to the other side to see if you can reach an agreement. There may even be mediators present who can help you.
The case is called. A judge or a member of the Court staff will call out your names. Go up to tables at the front of the Court. There may be specific side for the Plaintiff and Defendant. The judge will ask both parties for their names and you may be sworn in - meaning asked to swear to tell the truth.
Tell your story. The judge may then ask you to tell him or her about the case. Usually, the Plaintiff will be asked to go first. Both sides will get a turn to speak. The judge may ask additional questions. If you have any evidence, let the judge know. Evidence is:
Tell the judge exactly what you want. For example, ask the judge to order:
- the other side to do something by a certain date, and if they don’t to pay a specific amount of money;
- the other side to stop doing something by a certain date, and if they don’t to pay a specific amount of money;
- the other side to complete the contract;
- to have the contract undone.
If you want the other side to pay for costs, such as your filing fees or costs for service, you can ask the judge to order those ifyou win. Also, at the end of a hearing, the person who thinks he or she may have to pay the other side may ask the judge to allow them to pay in installments.
There may be more than one court hearing before the case is over.
For example, if an important witness did not show up either side may ask the judge to reschedule the case on another day.
When all of the issues have been decided and the paperwork is completed, the trial is over.
The judge will make a decision and sign it. This is called “the judgment.” The judge may announce the decision at the hearing. However, you may have to wait until the Notice of Entry of Judgment (Form SC-130) is mailed to you to find out what the decision is. The court has up to 90 days to mail this to you (and the other side.)
SPECIAL NOTE: The following are general guidelines. The actual rules may be different in each court, so learn your county's local rules of court on trial procedures.
- Find your county's court website.
- Dress neatly and respectfully.
- Take all of the documents that will be needed to show to the judge. Be sure you have copies for the other side.
- If you intend to call witnesses (other than you and the other side), and have filed and served a witness list, arrange for your witnesses to be present at court. Make sure they know where to go and that they allow plenty of time to find the courtroom. Give your witnesses a copy of this page so that they know what to expect.
- Be on time. Allow extra time for traffic or other possible delays. (If you are delayed or unable to attend the hearing due to a car breakdown, sudden illness, or other emergency, contact the department clerk on or before your hearing time.)
- Turn off your cell phone and/or pager when you enter the courtroom.
- When your case is called, walk to the table or podium in front of the judge and stand facing the judge.
- Be prepared to state your name and your relationship to the case.
- Speak clearly and loud enough that the judge can hear you. Speak only when it is your turn.
- When you speak to the judge, act respectfully and call him or her “your honor.” Be sure never to interrupt the judge.
- Answer all of the judge’s questions and stop talking immediately if the judge interrupts you.
- If you don’t understand something, say that you don’t understand. Someone will try to explain it for you.