Small Claims Court Frequently Asked Questions
and Additional Information
Frequently Asked Questions of Small Claims Court:
Can any kind of case be resolved in small claims court?
No. Small claims courts primarily resolve small monetary disputes. In a few other states, however, small claims courts may also rule on a limited range of other types of legal disputes, such as evictions or requests for the return of an item of property (restitution). You cannot use small claims court to file a divorce, guardianship, name change or bankruptcy, or to ask for emergency relief (such as an injunction to stop someone from doing an illegal act).
When it comes to disputes involving money, you can usually file in small claims court based on any legal theory that would be allowed in any other court -- for example, breach of contract, personal injury, intentional harm or breach of warranty. A few states do, however, limit or prohibit small claims suits based on libel, slander, false arrest and a few other legal theories.
Finally, suits against the federal government or a federal agency, or even against a federal employee for actions relating to his or her employment cannot be brought in small claims court. Suits against the federal government normally must be filed in a federal District Court or other federal court, such as Tax Court or the Court of Claims. Unfortunately, there are no federal small claims procedures available except in federal Tax Court.
Are there time limits in which a small claims court case must be filed?
Yes. States establish rules called "statutes of limitations" that dictate how long you may wait to initiate a lawsuit after the key event giving rise to the lawsuit occurs or, in some instances, is discovered. Statutes of limitations rules apply to all courts, including small claims.
You'll almost always have at least one year to sue (measured from the event or, sometimes, from its discovery). Often, you'll have much longer. There may be extenuating circumstances that lengthen or shorten the established Statute of Limitation - this is where a review by a lawyer may be of great benefit. If you're planning to sue a state or local government agency, however, you'll usually need to file a formal claim with that agency within three to six months of the incident. Only after your initial timely complaint is denied are you eligible to file in small claims court.
If some time has passed since the incident giving rise to your lawsuit occurred -- for example, after the breach of a written contract or a personal injury -- you may need to do a little research to determine whether you can still file your claim. Check your state's legal code under the index heading "statute of limitations."
How much can I sue for in small claims court?
The limit in Illinois is $10,000.
Where should I file my small claims lawsuit?
Assuming the other party lives or does business in your state, rules normally require that you sue in the small claims court district closest to that person's residence or headquarters. In some instances, you also may be able to sue in the location (venue) where a contract was signed or a personal injury occurred (such as an auto accident). Check with your small claims clerk for detailed rules.
If a defendant has no contact with your state, you'll generally have to sue in the state where the defendant lives or does business. Because of the distance involved, out-of-state small claims lawsuits tend to be expensive and unwieldy.
What can I do to resolve my problem with out going to small claims court?
If you want what's owed to you, but you don't want to take on the trouble of bringing a lawsuit, you have a couple of options to consider. First, even if you've been rudely turned down in the past, ask for your money at least once more. This time, make your demand in the form of a straightforward letter, concluding with the statement that you'll file in small claims court in fourteen days unless payment is promptly received. Unlike a conversation, where the other party may assume you'll never follow up, a demand letter is like a slap in the face that lets the person know you're serious about getting paid. Because many individuals and small business people have a strong aversion to the idea of a public trial (including the time and inconvenience), making it clear you are prepared to file a lawsuit can be an effective catalyst to getting the other party to talk settlement.
Will I get paid if I win the lawsuit?
Not necessarily. The court may decide in your favor, but it won't handle collection for you. So before you sue, always ask, "Can I collect if I win?" If not, think twice before suing.
Worrying about whether or not you can get paid is reasonable, because some people and businesses are "judgment proof" -- that is, they have little money or assets and aren't likely to acquire much in the foreseeable future. If they don't pay voluntarily, you may be out of luck. Ask yourself whether the person you're suing has a steady job, valuable real property or investments. If so, it should be reasonably easy to collect by garnishing his wages if you win. If not, try to identify another collection source, such as a bank account, before going forward. For people who seem to have no job or assets, ask whether they are likely to be more solvent in the future, since court judgments are good for 10 to 20 years in many states and can usually be renewed for longer periods. You'll want to consider now whether the person might inherit money, graduate from college and get a good job, or otherwise have an economic turn-around sometime down the road.
If I'm sued in small claims court but the other party is really at fault, can I countersue?
In Illinois, you can countersue as long as your claim arises out of the same event or transaction.
If the amount you sue for is under the small claims limit ($10,000), your case will probably remain in that court. If, however, you want to sue for more, check with your small claims clerk for applicable rules. Often, you'll need to have the case transferred to a different court (civil) which has the power to handle cases where more money is at stake.
What should I do to prepare my small claims case?
Whether you are a plaintiff (the person suing) or the defendant (person being sued), the key is to realize that it's usually what you bring with you to court to back up your story-not what you say-that determines whether you'll win or lose. This makes sense if you understand that the judge has no idea who you are and whether your oral (spoken) testimony is reliable. After all, your opponent is likely to claim that the "true story" is exactly the reverse of your version.
In short, your chances of winning will greatly increase if you carefully collect and prepare your evidence. Depending on the facts of your case, a few of the evidentiary tools you can use to convince the judge you are right include eyewitnesses, photographs, letters from experts, advertisements falsely hyping a product or service and written contracts.
We have prepared Checklist for both the Plaintiff and the Defendant, click on the appropriate description to view and print.
What's the best way to present my case to a judge?
First, understand that the judge is busy and has heard dozens of stories like yours. To keep the judge's attention, get to the point fast by describing the event what gave rise to your claim. Immediately follow up by stating how much money you are requesting. To be able to do this efficiently, it's best to practice in advance. Here is an example of a good start: "Your Honor, my car was damaged on January 10, 2000, when the defendant ran a red light at Lewis and Grand Streets in the town of Waukegan and hit my front fender. I have a canceled check to show it cost me $927 to fix the fender."
After you have clearly stated the key event, double back and tell the judge the events that led up to your loss. For example, you might now explain that you were driving below the speed limit and had entered the intersection when the light was green, and when the defendant came barreling through the red light, you did your best to avoid the defendant's car.
Can I bring a lawyer to small claims court?
In Illinois, you can be represented by a lawyer if you like. But hiring a lawyer is rarely cost-efficient. Most lawyers charge too much given the relatively modest amounts of money involved in small claims disputes. Happily, several studies show that people who represent themselves in small claims cases usually do just as well as those who have a lawyer.
Will my witnesses need to testify in person in small claims court? Corrected
You may bring to court witnesses to testify to their personal knowledge and observations relevant to the case. Do not bring letters from witnesses on the theory the witnesses could not appear personally. Such letters are not admissible in evidence even though written under oath and notarized. If witnesses refuse to attend the trial, you may have the Court order the witness to come to court with a subpoena. (See Section S.) Naturally, you may testify as a witness in your own case. You may also call the defendant(s) as a witness(s) and ask questions of them. Be prepared to make a brief but complete statement explaining your side of the case using your physical evidence, if any. It is a good idea to practice ahead of time what you are going to say to the Judge. Write out all questions you want to ask your witnesses.
If I lose my case in small claims court, can I appeal?
First, you can file a Notice of Motion and a written Motion to Reconsider before the Judge who heard the case and signed the judgment. You may use the forms for this purpose available on this website or at the Center for Self Representation or the Circuit Clerk’s office. You must ask the Circuit Clerk’s office to schedule a time and date for hearing on your Motion. A copy of your written Motion to Reconsider and the Notice of Motion (notifying the other party of the date you have scheduled with the clerk for hearing on your motion) must be mailed to the other parties in the case. Your motion should explain why the judgment was wrong based on the evidence presented at trial or the law.
You may appeal the judgment. A form Notice of Appeal is available on this website, at the Circuit Clerk’s office or at the Center for Self-Representation.
IMPORTANT: If you decide to appeal, you must file a Notice of Appeal in writing at the Circuit Clerk’s office within 30 days of the Judge’s decision.
If you decide to appeal without doing a Motion to Reconsider the judgment, you must file the Notice of Appeal within 30 days of the date of the judgment. If you decide to do a Motion to Reconsider, you must file the Notice of Appeal within 30 days of the judge’s decision on your Motion. The Circuit Clerk’s office will send the Notice of Appeal to the Appellate Court. There are very specific rules you need to follow in an appeal. You may want an attorney’s advice on whether and how to appeal. Unless excused, a bond is required to stop enforcement of a Judgment pending appeal. Filing an appeal does not automatically stop collection of the Judgment.
I've Been Sued. What Do I Do?
The Defendant's Options
If you are sued, you will be notified when you receive a copy of the Small Claim Complaint and Summons in one of three ways:
By certified mail
By hand delivery from the Sheriff or other authorized person to the defendant or a member of your household age 13 or older
By a licensed private detective
The complaint will tell you the reason you are being sued and the amount claimed. The summons will tell you when and where to file your "Appearance" if you contest the claim. DO NOT IGNORE THE SUMMONS. If you do nothing in response to the summons, the Court will probably award the plaintiff the amount claimed in the complaint plus court costs.
When sued, you may choose to do any one of the following things:
1. Admit you owe the plaintiff all of the amount claimed
If you admit owing the amount claimed and you can pay the plaintiff before the trial date, you may be able to avoid a Judgment being entered on the court records against your name. Contact the plaintiff immediately if you admit the claim. If you can’t pay the whole amount in one lump sum, perhaps you both can agree to smaller payments over a period of time.
2. Deny you owe the plaintiff all or part of the amount claimed by filing an "Appearance" with the clerk before the "Return Day" and mailing a copy to the plaintiff
If you contest the plaintiff’s claim in whole or in part, you must file an "Appearance" with the Clerk of the Court and pay the "Appearance" fee before the "Return Day." IMMEDIATELY MAIL A COPY OF YOUR "APPEARANCE" TO THE ATTORNEY FOR THE PLAINTIFF, OR, IF NONE, TO THE PLAINTIFF. You are not required to appear in person in court on the "Return Day" If an appearance has been timely filed. The purpose of the "Return Day" is to see if the claim is contested or uncontested, and if contested to put the case on the trial call 14 days later. The trial is AUTOMATICALLY set for the 14th day after the "Return Day," at the same time (9 am or 1:30 pm) as the summons was returnable. On the return date a Judge will listen to both sides of the case and render a decision.
3. File a lawsuit against the plaintiff called a counterclaim, if you believe the plaintiff owes you money in connection with the reason he claims you owe him money
If you claim that the plaintiff(s) (person(s) who filed suit against you) owed you money as a result of the same transaction on which they base their claim, you may file a lawsuit called a counterclaim against them. This is done by filling out a standard Small Claim Complaint form and giving it to the clerk along with the filing fee. The person filing the counterclaim is known as the counter-plaintiff and the person being sued is known as the counter-defendant. The title on the standard complaint form should be changed to so name the parties. The counter-plaintiff need not serve a summons on the counter-defendant but must notify him by mailing a copy of the counterclaim as soon as possible and be prepared to prove the mailing (for example: certified mail, return receipt requested). The original complaint and counterclaim will be heard at the same time. The Court may postpone such a trial so everyone has an opportunity to be prepared.
4. Settle the dispute out of court
You may contact the plaintiff to attempt to settle the dispute out of court. The fact that you offered to settle the case will not be considered against you at trial. If you settle out of court after being served with a complaint and summons, you would be wise to have your settlement in writing. The settlement agreement need not be complicated but should be sufficiently detailed to be enforceable in court if there is a later misunderstanding between the parties. Always notify the clerk of any settlement so that the case may be removed from the court calendar. The plaintiff should write and sign a short note to the clerk advising of the settlement.
If you do not settle out of court or file an "Appearance" before the "Return Date", a Judgment by Default may be entered against you for the amount claimed plus the court costs.
Try to Negotiate a Compromise. If you feel that perhaps the plaintiff has some right on his side, but that you are being sued for too much, contact the plaintiff and try to work out a compromise settlement. One good approach is to call, write or email the plaintiff and make an offer. How much depends on the relative merits of your defense and whether the plaintiff is asking for a dollar amount you think is reasonable, or one that is substantially inflated. Assuming the plaintiff has a strong legal position (you probably are legally responsible), and is asking the court for an amount that's, broadly speaking, reasonable, you might begin by making an initial compromise offer to pay about half of the amount the plaintiff has requested. Even with a strong case, the plaintiff may be motivated to accept your lowball offer, if for no other reason than to save the time it takes to prepare for and appear in court. More likely, your offer will set in motion a little dance of offer and counteroffer, with an eventual compromise of somewhere between 65% and 80% of the plaintiff's original request. Obviously, if the plaintiff is asking for way too much, or you are not sure that a judge would rule in the plaintiff's favor, you'll want to offer less.
5. Consult with a Lawyer
Just because the plaintiff wants to represent himself does not mean you have to! An attorney can review the case to possibly give you other options, represent you in court or assist in mediating a compromise between the two parties. Some attorneys will review your case for a fee
What we don't recommend -- if someone sues you in Small Claims Court.
1. Claim Improper Service or Another Technical Defense
You may conclude that you were not properly (legally) sued or served with the plaintiff's court papers. Perhaps the plaintiff's papers were left with a neighbor, you were not given the correct number of days in which to respond, or you have been sued in the wrong county of your state. For any of these or other similar reasons, you may decide that a major defect in the case means there is no need to show up in court. Wrong. A judge can easily overlook even a major technical problem and, as a result, enter a judgment against you by default. If this happens, you will have to go to the trouble of requesting that the judgment be set aside. Far better to contact the clerk immediately to explain the problem with the service or the court location, and ask that the case be delayed (continued) to a date that is convenient for you or transferred to the correct court.Out-of-state defendants. If you don't live -- or do business -- in a state where you are sued, a court normally doesn't have power ("jurisdiction," in legalese) to enter a valid judgment against you, unless court papers are served on you while you happen to be in that state. (Exceptions exist for people who live out of state but own land in the state where the lawsuit was filed or got into a traffic accident in that state.) If you are an out-of-state resident and receive small claims papers via the mail, promptly write a letter to the court explaining that you do not believe you are subject to the court's jurisdiction. Stay in touch with the court clerk until you are sure the case has been dismissed.
2. Don't Show Up (Default)
Assume you have no valid defense on the merits of the case. Perhaps you borrowed money under the terms of a written contract and haven't paid it back. Since you know you'll lose, you conclude that it makes little sense to fight back in court. Fine, but realize your decision not to show up will almost surely result in a default judgment against you. The judgment will probably be for the dollar amount demanded by the plaintiff, plus the amount of his filing fee and any reasonable costs to serve the papers on you.
Rules and Regulations pertaining to Small Claims Court
This is a non-exclusive list of local and State court rules and regulations pertaining to Small Claims court.
Nineteenth Judicial Circuit Local Court Rules
Part 1.00 - Organization
Part 2.00 - Motions /Notice
- Rule 2.01 - Motions Generally/Notice
- Rule 2.02 - Contested Motions
- Rule 2.03 - Motions for Consolidation of Cases
- Rule 2.04 - Motions for Summary Judgment
- Rule 2.05 - Emergency Motions
- Rule 2.06 - Telephone Conference
- Rule 2.07 - Orders
Part 3.00 - Proceedings before Trial
- Rule 3.01 - Appearance, Jury Demands
- Rule 3.02 - Pleadings to be Readily Comprehensible
- Rule 3.03 - Written Interrogatories
- Rule 3.04 - Discovery Documents
- Rule 3.05 - Days for Taking Depositions/Attendance
- Rule 3.06 - Apportionment of Time, Deposition
- Rule 3.07 - Seasonably Updating Discovery
- Rule 3.08 - Compliance with Supreme Court Rule 222
- Rule 3.09 - Local Subpoena Rules, Pretrial Discovery
- Rule 3.16 - Medical Experts
Part 7.00 - Small Claims
Part 15.00 - Post Judgment Proceedings
Rule 15.01 - Post-Judgment Notices - Warnings
- 15.02 - Post-Trial Motions and Supplemental Proceedings to Enforce Judgments
- 15.03 - Citation to Discover Assets
- 15.04 - Rule to Show Cause
- 15.05 - Issuance of Order of Body Attachment
- 15.06 - Copy of Rule or Order
- 15.07 - Satisfaction of Judgment by Court Order
- 15.08 - Deposit with Clerk of Court and order of Satisfaction of Judgment
- 15.09 - Deposit for Preparation by Clerk of Appeal Record in Civil Cases
Part 21.00 - Miscellaneous
Rule 21.01 - Photography, Radio, Television, Audio Recording Devices and Cellular Telephones
- 21.02 - Court Reporters
- 21.03 - Legal Holidays
- 21.04 - Non-Judicial Appointments
- 21.05 (Addition) - Appearance of Counsel Pro Hac Vice
State of Illinois Supreme Court Rules
ARTICLE II. - RULES ON CIVIL PROCEEDINGS IN THE TRIAL COURT
PART A. PROCESS AND NOTICE
- Rule 101 - Summons and Original Process--Form and Issuance
- Rule 102 - Service of Summons and Complaint; Return
- Rule 103 - Alias Summons; Dismissal for Lack of Diligence
- Rule 104 - Service of Pleadings and Other Papers; Filing
- Rule 105 - Additional Relief Against Parties in Default--Notice
- Rule 106 - Notice of Petitions Filed for Relief From, or Revival of, Judgments
PART B. PLEADINGS AND OTHER PAPERS
- Rule 131 - Form of Papers
- Rule 133 - Pleading Breach of Statutory Duty; Judgment or Order; Breach of Condition Precedent
- Rule 134 - Incorporation of Pleadings by Reference
- Rule 137 - Signing of Pleadings, Motions and Other Papers--Sanctions
PART C. APPEARANCES AND TIME FOR ANSWERS, REPLIES, AND MOTIONS
- Rule 181 - Appearances--Answers--Motions
- Rule 182 - Time for Pleadings and Motions Other Than Those Directed to Complaint
- Rule 183 - Extensions of Time
- Rule 184 - Hearings on Motions
- Rule 185 - Telephone Conferences
PART I. SMALL CLAIMS
- Rule 281 - Definition of Small Claim
- Rule 282 - Commencement of Action -- Representation of Corporations
- Rule 283 - Form of Summons
- Rule 284 - Service by Certified or Registered Mail
- Rule 285 - Jury Demands
- Rule 286 - Appearance and Trial
- Rule 287 - Depositions, Discovery and Motions
- Rule 288 - Installment of Payment of Judgments
- Rule 289 - Service of Process in Proceedings to Confirm a Judgment by Confession or to Collect a Judgment for $5,000 or Less
PART J. MISCELLANEOUS
- Rule 298 - Application to Sue or Defend as a Indigent Person
We recommend you continue to the
"After the Judgment"
section for additional information.