Conciliation Court, better known as small claims court, is available when someone wants to sue another party for $7,500 or less. Conciliation courts allow individuals to pursue these claims without having to hire and pay a lawyer, and in general they can be an inexpensive means to seek redress. The most common claims for small claims courts are made by:
- Creditors seeking unpaid debts
- Employees seeking unpaid wages
- Tenants for a return of their security deposit
- Landlords for damage done to the property by the tenant
There are some claims that cannot be brought in conciliation court, including:
- Title actions to real estate
- Medical malpractice claims
- Class action claims
- Actions against a deceased individual
When someone files a claim in conciliation court, he or she becomes the plaintiff, and the person who the plaintiff makes a claim against is the defendant. Typically, the plaintiff will need to file the claim in the county where the defendant lives, or operates their business. The form required to file a claim is available at local courthouses and will contain instructions as to how to fill it out and submit it. Court staff will also be available to answer questions about filling the form. The form must be notarized and the plaintiff must submit a filing fee. The filing fee varies depending on the county; however, the fee will usually be under $100. After the claim is filed it will have to be served on the defendant. If the claim is for less than $2,500 the court will be able to mail the claim to the defendant. If the claim is more than $2,500, it is the responsibility of the plaintiff to have the claim served, but court staff will oftentimes explain how that can be arranged.
When it comes time for the hearing, the proceedings are informal, but the plaintiff must be able to make an argument for his or her case. If there are any witnesses that are relevant they must be present at the hearing and prepared to testify. Any other evidence that a plaintiff may have that could help his or her case should be brought and presented during the hearing. The court’s ruling on the hearing will most likely not occur right away, rather the decision will be sent out in the mail. It is important to note that just because the court ruled for the plaintiff in a given situation, payment is not automatic. It is up to the plaintiff to pursue payment from the defendant.
Although a lawyer is not necessary throughout this process, a potential plaintiff may seek advice and guidance from a lawyer. This may not necessarily mean that he or she has to hire a lawyer, but may ask a lawyer questions about the proceedings that a plaintiff might not know. Fees relating to this advice can vary depending on the lawyer. It is always important to ask first about fees and charges.
An example of a situation where one may need to consult an attorney is that some claims in conciliation court have a statute of limitation. This means that after a certain number of years after the harmful event occurred, a claim can no longer be brought in court. Seeking an attorney’s advice about whether a claim has a statute of limitation, and if so, if too many years have passed, could be very helpful to the plaintiff’s claim. A lawyer’s advice may also help a plaintiff determine where, in what county, to file the claim if a plaintiff is unsure. It can sometimes be unclear what court will have the authority to hear a claim, and it may be best to receive the advice of a lawyer.
In general, the conciliation court process is meant to be accessible to the public and a way to successfully remedy small claims disputes without the need to hire a lawyer for representation.