During the Case
Overview of the general steps of a case:
- The person that wants to sue fills out the Plaintiff’s Claim and Order to Go to Small Claims Court (Form SC-100). This person is called the Plaintiff.
- The plaintiff files the required forms with the court and pays the court filing fees.
- 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.
- The person who served the court forms completes a form, a “Proof of Service”, that says he or she served the forms to the defendant in the proper way and on time.
- 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.
- 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 hearing. The decision will be on a form called the Notice of Entry Judgment (Form SC-130).
HOWEVER, if the defendant also has a claim against the plaintiff, he or she may file a form to sue the plaintiff in the same lawsuit. Then a judge will hear both disputes at the same time.
These are the common steps in a case. Your case may have more or slightly different steps.
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.
To start a claim, follow steps 1 through 4, 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.
NOTE: Before you can file your papers, you need to know 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.
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)
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:
- Make copies of the forms and all attachments – one copy for each of the named defendants and one for your files.
- Learn what the filing 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.
File your court forms.
- In person - By going to the court, handing the forms to the clerk and paying the filing fee. For a fee, you can hire a company to do this for you.
- By mail - By mailing the forms to the court. Make sure you include your filing fees.
- Online - In some counties you can file your claim online-called efiling. Check on your court's website to see if this option is available. There may be an extra fee to e-File.
Once the court clerk has your forms and filing fees, the clerk will:
- Assign a case number.
- Give you a Court date.
- Stamp all of the forms.
- 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."
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."
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 gives them to the defendant.
- 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.
There are special service rules for some defendants. Learn what to do if you are suing:
- Your landlord
- A California-based business or government agency
- An out-of-state corporation
- An out-of-state driver or owner of a vehicle
- An out-of-state owner of property in California.
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 Court cannot hear your court case unless it knows the other person was served the court papers.
Server Fills Out Proof of Service
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)
File Proof of Service
- 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.
1. Plan what you are going to say.
Small claims trials are often very short--sometimes as littles as 10-15 minutes. You need to plan how to get your main points across in a short amount of time. It may help to write down your main points-you can refer to this if you get nervous.
What are your main points? What do you think the other person will say and how do you plan to respond?
Practice telling your story. If you can, practice in front of friends or family.
Tips for Telling Your Side to the Judge:
Be quick and to the point, and stay calm.
If you are the Plaintiff:
- Start with the end of the story--what the dispute is about and how much you are asking for.
- Then, tell the judge 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."
- Explain why it is the other person's fault.
- If you have evidence to support your case, refer to it as you are telling your story.
If you are the Defendant:
- Begin by addressing the main issue you and the other person disagree about.
- If you have a different version of what happened, also explain what happened in the order it happened.
- Explain why it is not your fault.
- If you have evidence to support your case, refer to it as you are telling your story.
2. Arrange to bring any papers or items that support your story.
Gather any evidence you may need in advance. Examples of evidence are:
- Estimates (bring 3, if possible)
- Diagrams that show how an accident happened
- Police reports
- The damaged object
NOTE: Learn more about using things as evidence. If you need papers that someone else has (other than the other side), you can fill out a subpoena form (Form SC-107) and request these documents. Learn more about subpoenas.
3. Arrange to bring witnesses who saw or heard what happened.
Let any witnesses know about your Court date so they can arrange to be there.
- 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.
- Some witnesses can't come without a Court order-called a subpoena. Learn more about subpoenas.
- If a witness can't come to Court, you may be able to arrange for them to testify by phone or to submit a sworn Declaration instead. Learn more about using people as evidence.
4. Arrange to have an Interpreter
If you don't speak or understand English well, the Court to see if they can provide an interpreter. If the Court doesn't provide one, arrange to bring someone to interpret for you. If you can't find an interpreter in time, you can ask the court to delay your case so you can get one.
5. Go to the Court to See What Hearings are Like
If you have time, find out when and where small claims hearings take place. They are public hearings. You can go watch a couple hearings to find out what happens and the type of questions the judge asks.
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.
Review and Organize Your Papers
- Read the court papers carefully. Understand what was asked for in the court papers.
- Write down any main points and dates you may need to remember.
- Make copies of any evidence you plan to bring to Court. Bring the original (if you have it) and the copies to Court with you.
- Put a copy of all the documents filed in your case, your notes, and your evidence in a folder to bring to Court. Organize the papers so you can find them quickly if asked.
Find out Where to go and What These Cases are Like
- Learn how to be on time for all court dates. Look up the Court address on a map. 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.
Plan for the Day in Court
- Arrange for childcare for your children.
- Arrange for an interpreter if you need one. You may use an adult friend or relative to interpret for you.
- Check in with any witnesses to make sure they know about the Court date and plan to attend.
- Plan what you are going to wear. 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.
Both sides get a turn to speak. 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 or witnesses, let the judge know. If your evidence is a document or picture, give a copy to the other side. Have a copy ready to give the judge as well.
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 if you 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.
The Judge Decides the Case.
The judge will make a decision and sign it. This is called “the judgment.” The judge may announce the decision at the hearing or may wait and mail you the decision. The court has up to 90 days to mail this to you (and the other side).
SPECIAL NOTE: The above 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), 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 late or can't make the court date due to a car breakdown, sudden illness, or other emergency, contact the department clerk on or before your hearing time.)
- Silence your cell phone before you enter the Court room.
- When you speak to the judge, act respectfully and call him or her “your honor.” Never interrupt the judge.