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Small-claims courts have limited jurisdiction to hear civil cases between private litigants. Courts authorized to try small claims may also have other judicial functions, and go by different names in different jurisdictions. For example, it may be known as a county or magistrate's court. These courts can be found in Australia, Brazil, Canada, England and Wales, Ireland, Israel, New Zealand, Scotland, South Africa, Hong Kong, and the United States.
The jurisdiction of small-claims courts typically encompasses private disputes that don't involve large amounts of money. The routine collection of small debts forms a large portion of the cases brought to small-claims courts, as well as evictions and other disputes between landlords and tenants, unless the jurisdiction is already covered by a tenancy board.
A small-claims court generally has a maximum monetary limit to the amount of judgments it can award, often in the thousands of dollars/pounds. By suing in a small-claims court, the plaintiff typically waives any right to claim more than the court can award. The plaintiff may or may not be allowed to reduce a claim to fit the requirements of this venue. 'Court shopping'—where a plaintiff reduces the damage claim amount to have a trial in a court that otherwise does not have jurisdiction—is strictly forbidden in some states. For example, if a plaintiff asserts damages of $30,000 in hopes of winning an award of $25,000 in small-claims court, the court dismisses the case because the court does not have jurisdiction to hear cases in which asserted damages exceed the court's maximum amount.
Thus, even if the plaintiff is willing to accept less than the full amount, the case cannot be brought to small-claims court. To bring the case to small-claims court, the plaintiff must prove that actual damages are within the court's jurisdiction. In some jurisdictions, a party who loses in a small-claims court is entitled to a trial de novo in a court of more general jurisdiction and with more formal procedures.
The rules of civil procedure, and sometimes of evidence, are typically altered and simplified to make the procedures economical. A usual guiding principle in these courts is that individuals ought to be able to conduct their own cases and represent themselves without a lawyer. Rules are relaxed, but still apply to some degree. In some jurisdictions, corporations must still be represented by a lawyer in small-claims court. Expensive court procedures such as interrogatories and depositions are usually not allowed in small-claims court, and practically all matters filed in small-claims court are set for trial. Under some court rules, should the defendant not show up at trial and not have requested postponement, a default judgment may be entered in favor of the plaintiff.
Trial by jury is seldom or never conducted in small-claims courts; it is typically excluded by the statute establishing the court. Similarly, equitable remedies such as injunctions, including protective orders, are seldom available from small-claims courts.
Separate family courts may exist to hear simple cases in family law. For reasons having more to do with history than with the sort of case typically heard by a small-claims court, most US states do not allow domestic relations disputes in small-claims court.
Winning in small-claims court does not automatically ensure payment in recompense of a plaintiff's damages. This may be relatively easy, in the case of a dispute against an insured party, or extremely difficult, in the case of an uncooperative, transient, or indigent defendant. The judgment may be collected through wage garnishment and liens.
Most courts encourage parties with disputes to seek alternative dispute resolution, if possible, before filing suit. For example, the Superior Court of California, Santa Clara provides guidelines for resolving disputes out of court. Both parties can agree on arbitration by a third party to settle their dispute outside of court, though while small-claims court judgments can still be appealed, arbitration awards cannot.
Small claim courts in Brazil were established by Law No. 9,099/1995 and Article One of such law states that they shall be organized by both Federal Judiciary and State Judiciary. Therefore, there are Federal Small Claim Courts (single noun Juizado Especial Federal), as well as Small Claim Courts that are part of a state's judiciary structure. The Small Claim Courts that belong to a State's Judiciary are subdivided into two types of courts: the Special Civil Court (Juizado Especial Cívil, shortened as JEC) and the Special Criminal Court (Juizado Especial Criminal, shortened as Jecrim). Under Article Three of Law No. 9,099/1995, Civil Claims involving an amount up to 40 (forty) monthly minimal wages or R$ 24,880.00 (October 2012), which correspond to roughly US$ 12,440.00, may be filed before a Special Civil Court, as well as small claims involving landlords and some claims set by Article 275, II, of the Code of Civil Procedure. Special Criminal Courts, on the other hand, may process claims involving small criminal offenses, which, under Article 60 of Law No. 9,099/1995 are those either set by the Contraventions Law (Decree No. 3,688/1941) or those where the penalty does not surpass 02 (two years). As per Article 54, there are no court fees for the Small Claim Courts. However, if an appeal is filed, court fees shall be applied.
All provinces have procedures for small claims in Canada. In general, there are two different models. In most provinces, including British Columbia, Alberta, and New Brunswick, small-claims courts operate independently of the superior courts. In other jurisdictions, the small-claims court is a branch or division of the superior court. In Ontario, the Small-Claims Court is a branch of the Superior Court of Justice, and in Manitoba, the Small-Claims Court is under the jurisdiction of the Court of the Queen's Bench.
Small-claims cases are heard by judges of the Provincial Court in British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan, by judges or deputy judges of the Superior Court of Justice in Ontario, and by Hearing Officers in Manitoba.
Small-claims courts are meant to provide an easier and less expensive path to resolve disputes than the higher courts. Small-claims court procedure is regulated both by provincial legislation and rules in most provinces. Small-claims procedure is simplified with no strict pleadings requirements and no formal discovery process, and parties' costs may be limited.
Monetary limits for small-claims courts in Canada vary by province:
In general, disputes involving title to land, slander, libel, bankruptcy, false imprisonment, or malicious prosecution must be handled in a superior court and cannot be determined in small-claims courts.
Small-claims courts in Australia are handled by the State system.
England and Wales does not have a separate small claims court. They are usually dealt with in the County Court after being allocated to the small claims track of the court system. Small claims take place under a modified set of rules. Low-value cases, including most non-personal injury cases up to £10,000, are usually assigned to the small claims track, producing a small claims action in the County Court. These cases are heard by district judges under an informal procedure.
An important difference between small claims and other civil claims is that the parties are usually unable to recover their legal costs, regardless of who wins or loses. For this reason, most individuals and businesses involved in small claims, deal with them without legal representation.
The separate small claims procedure was first introduced for claims up to £75 in 1973. This flowed from the statutory power of judges to order arbitration. The limit was raised to £1,000 in 1991, £3,000 in 1996 and £5,000 in 1999. As of 2011 consultation is underway on raising the limit to £15,000. It should be noted that the limit is only a guideline. The court may allocate a case to the small claim track where the claim is over the guideline if it is considered that the case is simple enough that it is an appropriate way of disposing of the matter.
The movement to establish small-claims courts typically began in the early 1960s, when justice of the peace courts were increasingly seen as obsolete, and officials felt it desirable to have such a court to allow people to represent themselves without legal counsel. In New York State, small claims courts were established in response to the 1958 findings of Governor Thomas E. Dewey's Tweed Commission on the reorganization of the state judiciary. Since then, the movement towards small-claims courts has led to their establishment in most U.S. states.
There is no equivalent to a small-claims court in the federal court. (Note that Congress has set the jurisdictional minimum for diversity jurisdiction cases at $75,000). Magistrate judges are authorized to handle certain preliminary matters. Since the year 2010, the costs of filing fees have increased in almost every state court system. Filing fees typically range from US$15 to $150, depending on the claim amount.
Some jurisdictions offer classes in small-claims court procedures. As such courts are open to the public, attendance at a few sessions may be useful to a person involved in a case, whether as plaintiff or defendant.
Several small-claims proceedings have appeared on television in court shows; however, the settings in these programs are not truly courts of law, even though they attempt to give off the appearance as such; they are merely forms of arbitration. Such shows include The People's Court, Judge Judy, Judge Joe Brown, Judge Mathis, etc.