Have you ever found yourself so engrossed in an episode of Suits that you repeatedly shout “Objection” at the TV, even after the show is over? Or perhaps you’ve always wanted the chance to say things like “Badgering the Witness” or “Asked and Answered” in a real courtroom.
Well if you need to get your money back from someone who won’t pay, you may just get your chance. If you’re suing for less than $10,000 in California, you can sue in small claims court. This is cheaper and less formal than full court proceedings. In fact, it’s so informal that lawyers aren’t even allowed in. Yes, that’s right. Strange as it sounds, small claims court is a Lawyer Free Zone. So even if the prospect of having to present your case on your own in front of a judge sounds about as appealing as a colonoscopy, that is the way things work in small claims court. You can’t bring a lawyer.
What are some of the key issues to think about before trying to collect your debt by suing in small claims court in California?
How much are you suing for: individuals can’t collect more than $10,000. Corporations and partnerships can’t collect more than $5,000. If you are owed more than that and you want to sue, you will need to file in civil court. A lawyer can represent you in civil court.
Have you asked for the money: if someone owes you money and you haven’t made any attempt to collect your debt, you are unlikely to win in small claims court in California. Send them a demand letter before you file your claim. If that doesn’t work, consider getting a lawyer to send a demand letter on your behalf. They may take the demand more seriously if it is sent by a lawyer.
Do you have evidence: a court in California will only award you whatever amount you can prove that you are owed. Make sure you take to court photos, records, copies of contracts, receipts and any other evidence that will help to build your case. You can also call witnesses. If anyone has information that you think would help to give you credibility in court, you should arrange for that person to come to court with you. If a witness is unable to attend a hearing, some judges allow the witness to write and sign a declaration containing their evidence. The witness may also be allowed to testify by telephone.
Have you run out of time: this is important. In California, there is a set time limit within which you must file your claim. This is called the statute of limitations. If you don’t file in time, the judge may dismiss your case. Some of the main time limits are:· Personal injury cases: two years from the day you were injured. If you don’t discover the injury right away, 2 years from the day you discover it. A minor has 2 years from their 18th birthday to file a case.
· Oral contracts: two years from the day the contract is broken.
· Written contracts: four years from the day the contract is broken.
If you’ve made demands and still can’t get your money back, suing in a California small claims court might be a sensible way for you to collect your debt. If you decide to go that route, when the big day comes, make sure you are prepared. Get to the court early. Try to observe the judge to see how he or she handles other cases. That might give you some insight into the kinds of issues that this judge considers to be important. When you are giving your presentation, don’t just stick to your prepared script. If the judge interrupts and wants you to focus on a particular issue, be flexible and do as asked. Try not to interrupt the judge or your opponent. Stay calm. Be respectful. Present the evidence. That is what will give you the best chance of winning your case.