Small Claims Court was created to promote convenient, prompt, effective and inexpensive resolutions of disputes. The basic purpose of Small Claims Court is to help people recover small sums of money without having to hire an attorney. You may file a complaint in Small Claims Court when you can show that a person or business owes you money or has harmed you financially, and will not pay. Generally, you can only litigate for money. Normally, property or merchandise cannot be recovered. If you have a claim for an amount of money under $3,000.00, and you have tried to collect it yourself, or used mediation, you may elect to take legal action in Small Claims Court.
Generally, you can present your case without an attorney. However, in many cases at least one of the parties is represented by an attorney so it's very important to consider your particular situation and make an informed decision before representing yourself.
What kind of claims can I file ?
Your case can be heard in Small Claims Court if your claim is less than $3,000.00 and your case is based upon one of the following:
- A contract or agreement. The agreement does not need to be in writing.
- Damage to property caused by someone's negligent driving of a motor vehicle.
- A landlord/tenant dispute after the plaintiff has obtained a " judgment for possession" in Landlord-Tenant section of Special Civil Part.
- Consumer complaints for defective merchandise or faulty workmanship
- Payment for work performed.
- Consumers also have the option to file a complaint in Special Civil Part of Superior Court. The claim limit in Special Civil Court is $10,000.00.
Claims that cannot be filed
The following is a general list of claims that cannot be filed in Small Claims:
- Claims arising from professional malpractice, for example, alleged malpractice by a doctor, dentist or lawyer.
- Claims for child support or alimony from a marital or domestic dispute.
- Claims arising from a probate matter.
How do I file a lawsuit?
There are at least two parties in a suit. The "plaintiff" is the person who sues another person by filing a complaint and must be 18 years or older. The "defendant" is the person being sued.
The plaintiff files suit in the county where the defendant lives, where the business is located or where the problem occurred. You may file by mail in most counties. Call the Court Clerk (856) 853-3232 and ask for a complaint form.
On the form you will be required to provide the following information: Your full legal name, street address and telephone number. The defendants name, street address and telephone number. A short, simple statement explaining what happened and why you are litigating. The complaint should end with a request by you for what you want the court to do for you. Such as, have the defendant pay you a specific amount of money and whatever other relief the court deems appropriate.
Be sure to spell the name of the defendant correctly. If you are suing a business, use the full and correct business name. You must also fill out a "summons" to go with each complaint. The summons is a statement requiring the defendant to appear at the trial. Once you have filled out the summons, return it to the Court Clerk who will then notify the defendant of your suit against him or her.
Special Civil Part v. Small Claims Court
Other than the monetary values, in both Small Claims Court and the Special Civil Part, you may represent yourself. However, in the Special Civil Part, procedures are more formal. Therefore, most people use an attorney to represent them. In the Special Civil Part, the plaintiff does not have to appear in court if the defendant fails to answer the complaint.
A 1993 Appellate Court decision requires courts to award plaintiff's attorney's fees if the defendant has been found to have violated the Consumer Fraud Act.
On the day of the trial, you must arrive at court at the scheduled time and be sure to bring any and all documents and any other evidence you will use to prove your case. Remind your witnesses in advance when and where to come for trial, it is a good idea to contact your witnesses the night before to review their testimony.
The trial proceedings are informal and simple. You, the defendant, and any other witnesses, and the judge will be the only persons allowed to testify at trial. There will be no jury. The judge will tell you what you are expected to do.
The judge will ask you to take an oath and then state your case. Tell your story simply and truthfully. Present your evidence in a clear and precise manner, do not discuss matters or unrelated incidents that are not related to the case.
The judge may ask you some questions, and will allow the defendant to ask you questions. Then your witnesses will testify and may also be questioned by the judge and the defendant. The defendants testimony will follow. The defendant's version of the facts will be different form yours, but the judge will allow you to question ("cross-examine") the defendant. The defendant will call his witnesses and you may cross examine those witnesses after they have testified. Remember, you may only ask questions that are relevant to the facts of the case. Do not interrupt a witness or the defendant while they are testifying, you will have the opportunity to ask questions and dispute their testimony.
The judge will decide the case after hearing all of the witnesses and examining the evidence presented at trial. The "Judgment" is the judges decision regarding which party is entitled to what. The judge may "enter judgment" immediately, or may take some time to consider the case. However, neither side may present more evidence during that consideration period. The judgment is recorded by the clerk's office as a permanent court record.
- If money is owed to you because you have been awarded a judgment in Special Civil Part, you are a judgment creditor. You should contact the person whom owes you the money (the judgment debtor) to discuss payment. Payment sometimes are made the day of the court hearing or over a period of time. If you do not receive the money that is owed to you, there are several ways the court can help you collect what is owed.
For more information, please visit the Small Claims Court website at http://www.judiciary.state.nj.us/gloucester