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Small Claims Court

Small claims courts resolve disputes involving claims for small amounts of money. While the maximum amounts that can be claimed or awarded differ from state to state, court procedures generally are simple, inexpensive, quick and informal. Court fees are minimal, and you often get your filing fee back if you win your case. Generally, you will not need a lawyer, and some states do not permit them.

If you live in a state that allows lawyers and the party you are suing brings one, do not be intimidated. The court is informal, and most judges make allowances for consumers who appear without lawyers. Even though the court is informal, the judge's decision is binding and must be followed.

Enforcing a Decision

If the party bringing the suit wins the case, the party who lost will often follow the court's decision without additional legal action. If losing parties will not obey the decision, the winning party can go back to court and ask for the order to be enforced. Depending on local laws, the court might order property to be taken by law enforcement officials and sold. The winning party will get the money from the sale, up to the amount owed. Or, if the person who owes the money receives a salary, the court might order the employer to garnish or deduct money from each paycheck and give it to the winner of the lawsuit.

Check your local telephone book under the municipal, county or state government headings for small claims court offices.

• Ask the clerk how to use the small claims court.

• Request educational material to prepare you for small claims court.

• Observe a small claims court session before taking your own case to court.

Dispute Resolution

Many small claims courts have dispute resolution programs to help citizens resolve their disputes before trial. These programs (e.g., mediation and conciliation) often simplify the process. In mediation, both people involved in the small claims dispute meet, and with the assistance of a neutral, third party mediator, discuss the situation and create their own agreement.

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