What is a Small Claims Hearing?

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  • Written By: K. Testa
  • Edited By: Michelle Arevalo
  • Last Modified Date: 12 May 2018
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A small claims hearing is a legal proceeding that takes place in small claims court, sometimes referred to as a magistrate’s court or county court. Typically, the plaintiff and defendant appear before a judge to plead their cases, usually without separate legal representation. A small claims lawsuit generally involves a small amount of money that the plaintiff is attempting to collect, or is seeking in the form of damages. Some examples of small claims cases can include personal disputes or landlord-tenant cases, including eviction in some jurisdictions. The small claims judge typically hears the case and issues a judgment after considering all of the evidence presented at the hearing.

Prior to a small claims hearing, the plaintiff usually files a complaint with the court and the defendant is notified. Laws vary by jurisdiction, but the plaintiff is generally required to serve the defendant with a copy of the claim, as well as a summons to appear in small claims court. This typically takes place after the two parties have unsuccessfully attempted to reach a settlement through either formal or informal mediation procedures.


When the plaintiff files a civil suit, he or she alleges some wrongdoing by the defendant. The defendant then appears in small claims court to answer the allegations against him or her. If the defendant fails to appear in court, however, the judge can usually issue a default judgment in favor of the plaintiff. A typical small claims lawsuit usually involves a debt that is owed, or damage that has been done, to the plaintiff or his property. A plaintiff might consult a lawyer for advice, but he or she normally represents himself or herself at the small claims hearing.

During a small claims hearing, both parties present evidence that is usually immediately examined by the judge. This can include written documents, photographs, and witness testimony. In some cases, the defendant can also sue the plaintiff for damages by filing a counterclaim. Except for the absence of attorneys representing the parties, a small claims hearing follows the normal rules of court for the given jurisdiction.

Often, the small claims judge issues his or her decision directly after hearing all of the evidence. Other times, he or she goes into his or her chambers to deliberate. The judge might issue his or her ruling in person. Otherwise, the parties await written notification of the decision through the mail. In many jurisdictions, a small claims judgment is final, and usually cannot be appealed by either party.



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