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  • Writer's pictureDavid Manes

How and when to handle your own claim in small claims court

The justice system can be intimidating for many folks. And with good reason. A tangle of laws, rules and procedures lie around every corner. There are time limits for everything and if you do not do things in exactly the correct manner you can lose your rights. That is why many people end up contacting lawyers for even minor disputes of a few hundred dollars or a small piece of personal property. The problem with that though, is that you end up spending more on a lawyer than the amount of money that you can recover. Below are a few tips for navigating small claims on your own and without a lawyer.

What is a small claim?

Anything under one thousand dollars is generally considered a small claim. But really, you should be able to handle any claim of up to three thousand dollars on your own. If your dispute ranges over three thousand dollars, it may be worth it to you call a lawyer.

Why is it not worth it to use a lawyer for small claims?

Most lawyers charge over two hundred dollars an hour at an hourly rate. So if you have a claim for a thousand dollars the lawyer can eat that up if he spends just five hours working on your case. The lawyer may take the case on a contingency of around 40%, but again, you are losing four hundred dollars of a one thousand dollar debt. If you add in court costs you may recover only about five hundred dollars. You are better off handling it on your own.

How to use the small claims courts?

For small amounts of money you can file your claim before a district magistrate or before an arbitration panel at the court of common pleas. I suggest using the magistrate. You only need to convince one person that your claim is correct and the process will be more expeditious and less formal.

Once you have decided to use the magistrate, locate the magisterial district and see if the transaction you are complaining about took place within that particular district. If it did, then you will know that the magistrate has jurisdiction and power to hear that claim. Also, if the business or person that you are suing is physically located within the magistrate’s district, you can choose that magistrate

Filing the complaint

Most magisterial offices have pre-printed forms that will allow you to lay out your complaint and the amount of money that you are seeking. It is one sheet of paper and relatively simple to fill out. If you need help, the staff at the office will more than likely be happy to accommodate and assist you. Keep in mind they do a charge a fee of over one hundred dollars to file the complaint.

Your hearing

After you filed the magistrate will notify the opposing party and give you a court date. It is at the hearing that you will present the evidence you have showing how the other party wronged you and that they therefore owe you money.  For more information on how to win at small claims court hearing, read our next article.

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