Guide to Small Claims Court
Each district court in Arkansas has a division known as Small Claims Court. These courts are designed to allow individuals to settle certain disputes that are less than $5,000, while under relaxed rules of procedure and without attorneys. The small claims hearing is a process designed to provide each party with the full advantage of the law as a means of settling a minor legal dispute.
Any person who is 18 or older can use the court. A minor can use the court by having a parent, relative or “next friend” over 18 assist in filing a claim and attending the hearing.
No actions may be filed in a Small Claims Court by collection agencies, collection agents or any other person, firm, partnership, association or corporation involved in the business of lending money with interest.
What Kinds of Cases Can Be Taken to Small Claims Court?
Small Claims Court claims cover a wide variety of disputes. These include recovery for damages to personal property, for money owed or for delivery of personal property which is worth $5,000 or less. Suits involving contracts, security deposits, personal injuries and warranties are also common in Small Claims Court.
An important thing to remember is that the length of time you have to file your lawsuit depends upon the type of claim that you are bringing. If you claim a written agreement or contract has been broken, you have five years after the date it was broken to file your suit. If your claim is based upon an oral agreement or contract, then you have three years to file your lawsuit. The time limits for other types of claims may vary, depending upon the claim.
You cannot use Small Claims Court to file for a divorce, guardianship, name change, bankruptcy or to contest title to or possession of real estate.
Where Do I File Suit?
You can file a lawsuit in the county in which a defendant currently resides or in the county where he was to perform an obligation. If the action is for an injury, you can file the suit in the county where the injury occurred or in the county where the defendant resides. In all other cases, you must file the suit in the county where the defendant resides.
How Do I File Suit?
To bring a lawsuit, you, as the plaintiff, must complete a legal form known as a Complaint and pay a filing fee that typically varies between $30 and $65. Most district court clerks have Complaint forms available to use or copy.
To complete the Complaint, you will need to provide the following information:
- The name and address of the plaintiff and the defendant(s). It is important to give the exact legal name and address of the defendant, because the suit cannot proceed until the defendant has received notice of the suit.
- The amount of money being claimed or a description of the property to be recovered.
- A brief, but complete description of why the plaintiff believes the defendant owes him the amount of money or property claimed.
What Happens After I Have Filed Suit?
Upon filing the Complaint, the district court clerk will provide you with the documents necessary to be served upon the defendant in order to notify the defendant of your Complaint. Complaints are usually served in one of three ways: certified mail, by personal delivery of a summons by the Sheriff or by personal delivery by some other person authorized to serve the civil process. The cost of serving the Complaint upon the defendant is borne by the plaintiff. If the plaintiff prevails in court, the plaintiff can ask the court to award the plaintiff reimbursement from the defendant for all court costs, including filing fees and costs for service of process.
The defendant should file a written response, called an Answer, to the plaintiff’s Complaint. The Answer should tell the defendant’s side of the story. If the defendant feels he has a claim against the plaintiff, the defendant may wish to file a Counterclaim against the plaintiff. The Counterclaim becomes the defendant’s Complaint against the plaintiff.
The defendant’s Answer must be filed by the deadline noted on the documents served upon the defendant. Usually, the deadline is 30 days from the date the defendant receives the plaintiff’s Complaint. In some cases, the defendant may respond to the plaintiff’s Complaint by appearing in court on the date of the hearing, even if the defendant has not filed a written response to the plaintiff’s Complaint. However, it is highly recommended that the defendant always file a written response, and the defendant should check with the clerk of the court regarding any other practices allowed in that court.
The defendant should file a copy of his Answer (and any Counterclaim) with the clerk of the court and serve copies of these documents upon the plaintiff. Even if the defendant files a written Answer, the defendant still must appear at the hearing.
How Do I Prepare for My Hearing?
To prove your case, you should gather all the evidence, witnesses, papers, photographs, receipts, estimates, canceled checks or anything else that concerns your case and bring them to court with you. Organize your thoughts. You can help yourself by being well prepared. Put events into a timeline: what happened first, second, third, etc. This will help you make a clear presentation to the judge.
You must bring everything that you want the judge to consider with you at the time of hearing. Anything not presented will not be considered.
If you are using witnesses, make sure that they know the location of the courthouse and the time of the hearing. If a witness refuses to cooperate, you can obtain a subpoena from the court clerk. A subpoena is a command to appear at a certain time and at a certain place to give testimony on a certain matter.
Remember, this is a court of law, so be courteous. Dress appropriately for the occasion. Direct all of your statements to the judge. Do not argue with the other party. Do not interrupt the judge.
What Can Happen at the Hearing?
If both the plaintiff and the defendant appear at the hearing, the judge will ask the plaintiff to present his case and then ask the defendant to present his defense and also evidence and testimony to support any Counterclaim he may have filed. The judge will then rule on all claims and inform the parties of the court’s rulings.
If the plaintiff appears but the defendant does not appear, the court may enter what is known as a default judgment against the defendant. This means that the plaintiff has won his case. However, the plaintiff must still be prepared to provide to the court evidence and testimony to support the plaintiff’s claim for relief.
If the plaintiff does not appear but the defendant does appear, the court may dismiss the plaintiff’s Complaint and may enter default judgment on the Counterclaim, if any, filed by the defendant. The defendant must be prepared to provide evidence and testimony to support his Counterclaim.
Prior to the hearing, either party may ask for a continuance, which is a request to reset the hearing for a later date. It is important that any such requests be made prior to the hearing and in writing. Also, if any party asks for a continuance, that party should notify the other party of the request.
What Can I Do to Collect My Money?
The prevailing party, the person who wins the lawsuit, is entitled to receive the costs of the action, including the costs of service and notice directing the appearance of the losing party and the costs of enforcing a judgment rendered in the action. You should be aware that the judge only determines who should prevail in the lawsuit; it is the prevailing party’s responsibility to make sure that the loser pays the amount the judge orders. If you have trouble collecting the money that the judge has found you are entitled to, there are two possible causes of action available to you: a writ of garnishment and a writ of execution.
The writ of garnishment of wages will order an employer to take out a certain amount from the defendant’s paycheck. The maximum amount that can be withheld is 25 percent of net disposable income. Sometimes a person’s low income will prevent you from being able to garnish his wages or will allow you to receive only a small amount of money at a time.
A writ of garnishment may also be directed at a third party who is holding money for the defendant. Usually, this will be a bank account. For a writ of garnishment form, and instructions on how to proceed with a writ of garnishment, contact the district court clerk.
At a minimum you will need the following information:
- The defendant’s place of employment and the address and name of his or her bank if you are garnishing his or her bank account.
- You will also need to bring the fee necessary to process and file the garnishment. These costs will be added to the amount that is owed by the defendant. You are responsible for paying these costs until you can collect them from the defendant.
After the writ of garnishment is filed and served on the employer or bank, the employer or the bank has 10 days in which to file an Answer. Failure of the bank or employer to answer may result in the entry of a judgment against the bank or employer for the full amount specified in the original judgment.
After filing, the plaintiff will receive a notice of when the money should come to the court. You must go down to the clerk’s office upon that date and sign a statement to show that you received the money. The clerk will not call you when the money has arrived. It is your responsibility to keep in touch with the clerk’s office.
The second method of collection is the writ of execution. It is an order directing the sheriff to take the property of the defendant (for example, television, stereo, car, etc.) and sell it at a public auction in order for you to get your money. You should only use a writ of execution if there is no other means of collecting your money because it is a very complicated process.
In order to get a writ of execution against someone, you must:
- Go to the district court clerk where you filed your lawsuit and indicate that you wish to file a writ of execution.
- Fill out the form the clerk gives you, take it to the sheriff’s process office and pay them the fee they require for service.
- Stay in touch with the sheriff’s office in order to keep informed about what is happening with the writ.
- You must put up a bond with the court in case the defendant does not own the item you execute against. The bond will protect you and the sheriff’s process office against being sued if the item sold belonged to someone else.
- If you get this far without serious problems the sheriff will take custody of the property. You must pay for storage fees, advertising costs and, if a car is involved, towing charges, but you can be reimbursed for these costs from the proceeds of the sale.
Can You Appeal the Judge’s Decision?
In the event you lose at the hearing, you can appeal the judge’s decision if you desire. The appeal must be filed within 30 days from the date the Small Claims Court judgment is entered by the judge on the district court docket. You will have to pay another filing fee. If the Small Claims Court rules against you and sets a specific amount for money damages, you may have to post a bond in that amount to appeal the judgment. All appeals are filed in the circuit court of the county where the Small Claims Court is located.
If you have any questions or are confused about any of the elements or steps involved in filing a small claims court lawsuit, call the clerk at the district court in your area. They are usually able to assist you.
Small Claims Court Checklist
- Familiarize yourself with Small Claims Court procedures to the best of your ability. Contact the other party to try to resolve the problem using mediation or other forms of alternative dispute resolution.
- Determine the exact amount in dispute or create a description of the property to be recovered.
- Identify the proper court. The appropriate venue is usually the location where the defendant (the person you intend to sue) lives, works or where the incident over which you are suing occurred.
- Prepare and file your Complaint form. Your Complaint should include a clear and concise description of the facts upon which your Complaint is based. A filing fee, usually between $30 and $65, must be paid to the clerk of the small claims court at the time you file your Complaint.
- Arrange for service of process (delivery of your Complaint) on each defendant. The clerk will provide you with the necessary documents to be served. You may arrange for service upon the defendant by the sheriff or by some other person authorized by the court to serve the Complaint. In some cases, you may serve the Complaint upon the defendant by certified mail. Cost of service of process is borne by the plaintiff. Once service of process is complete, be sure that any documents showing proof of service are filed with the court.
- Prepare for court (organize your thoughts, collect evidence and talk to witnesses). If possible, attend a court hearing in the location where your hearing will take place to observe the process.
- Keep communication open by making attempts to resolve the dispute with the other party before the hearing.
- Familiarize yourself with Small Claims Court procedures.
- Contact the plaintiff and attempt to resolve the dispute.
- If you have a claim against the plaintiff, consider filing what is called a Counterclaim so that all claims of all parties can be resolved at one time. Ask the clerk how to file a Counterclaim. Refer to the check list for the plaintiff.
- Prepare for court (organize your thoughts, collect evidence and talk to witnesses). If possible attend a court hearing in the location where your hearing will take place to observe the process.
- Attend the hearing and present your evidence. Bring all of your evidence and all of your witnesses with you.