Do I Need a Lawyer for My Small Claims Case?
Have you ever suffered an injustice that you wanted to take to court? Maybe you even went so far as to do a little research or talk to a lawyer, but you ultimately decided that it was too overwhelming. Or maybe the lawyer refused your case because it was not worth enough money. You would be spending dollars to recover pennies. Don’t give up hope. You can represent yourself is the Small Claims Court. The legal system can be intimidating and anxiety-inducing to most people. It is unfamiliar and confusing, and there can be potentially serious consequences. An understanding of the Small Claims Court process can alleviate some of that anxiety, and you can learn to be your own lawyer in small claims court.
What is a small claim?
In Lake County, Illinois, small claims cases must be worth $10,000 or less. These claims are brought in the Small Claims Court, where the process for a lawsuit is simplified and expedited. The individual parties to the claim are generally not required to be represented by lawyers. Examples of the sorts of cases brought in the Small Claims Court are matters involving written or verbal contracts, minor personal injuries, improperly done repairs or property damage.
How do you start your small claim case?
The first thing you need to do is to determine what kind of injustice or wrong you have suffered. Is this a written contract or personal injury case? This is important because the first step in a small claims case is filling out the Complaint. The Complaint has five categories of claims which include (1) written and verbal contracts, (2) personal injury, (3) property damage, (4) improper repair and a (5) catch-all category for any other kind of claim. In addition to the Complaint, you need to fill out a Summons. The Summons notifies the defendant that he or she is being sued, gives the Court authority over the defendant and gives the defendant an opportunity to be heard.
Where do I get the Complaint and Summons for a small claims case?
You can obtain both of these documents online at the Court’s website.You can click on “all forms” and then select “small claims”, to locate the Small Claims Complaint and Summons. These are fillable forms that you can fill out online. Alternatively, you can go to the Lake County Courthouse at 18 North County Street in Waukegan, Illinois and go to the Circuit Clerk’s office in the basement of the Annex of the Courthouse to obtain these forms. It is also useful to know that there is a Center for Self-Representation at the William D. Block Memorial Law Library on the first floor of the Courthouse. The Center offers information, forms and other assistance to people who want to represent themselves. Finally, there is a very useful booklet entitled “Small Claims Court” prepared by the judges of the Nineteenth Judicial Circuit which is available at the Courthouse and on the Court’s website.
What do I do with my Complaint and Summons once I have filled it out?
You must file your original Complaint and Summons and three copies with the Circuit Clerk at the Courthouse. You will also need to pay a filing fee to the Clerk. The filing fee is based on a sliding scale determined by the amount of damages claimed in the Complaint. At the time of filing your Complaint and Summons, you will need to select a return day for your case that is not less than 14 and nor more than 40 days from the date of the issuance of the Summons. The trial date is then automatically scheduled for 14 days after the return day. Therefore, it is important to select your return day with care so that you are ready for your trial on that fourteenth day with all of your evidence (materials) and any witnesses (if needed) being available.
How do I let the defendant know I am suing him in Small Claims Court?
The Summons is the tool used to inform the defendant that he or she is being sued and gives the Court authority over the defendant for this claim. There are three ways to serve the Summons and Complaint on the defendant. You may have the Clerk serve the defendant by certified mail (if the defendant lives in Illinois), though if the defendant does not sign the receipt, you will have to ask the Clerk to issue a second (alias) Summons. Additionally, you can have the Lake County Sheriff issue the Summons and Complaint for a defendant living in Lake County, Illinois. You may also hire a private process server to deliver the Summons and Complaint.
What happens after the Complaint has been filed and defendant has been served?
The next step in the Small Claims Court process is the return day. You must attend court on the return day. If you, the plaintiff, do not attend Court on that date, your claim will be dismissed. If you attend Court on the return day and the defendant does not, you will obtain a default judgment against the defendant, which means, you win! However, if both plaintiff and defendant attend Court on the return day, then trial will be set in 14 days. Additionally, if the defendant does appear in court on the return day, the defendant also needs to file an Appearance with the Circuit Clerk and pay the fee for that Appearance.
What do I need to know about the trial?
The trial in a Small Claims Court is not like a trial on Judge Judy’s television show. The courtroom is not filled with jeering spectators; the courtroom is generally empty at the time when trials start. The trial is really a conversation which takes place at the Judge’s bench. The Judge will listen to all parties and witnesses, ask questions and look at the evidence presented. The judge will make a decision called the judgment. It should be noted that once a judgment is rendered, the losing party has 30 days to pay the judgment. If payment is not made within 30 days, the winning party may begin collection proceedings to enforce the judgment. Enforcement is another legal proceeding that you may handle yourself.
Are there any special court procedures for people representing themselves in Small Claims court?
It is useful for pro se (“on your own”) claimants to know that there is a special day set aside for pro se claimants. On those days, mediators, who are experienced lawyers, help the Small Claims judge. These mediators will talk to both parties and try to work out agreements, if possible, so a trial will no longer be necessary.
Is there a way to avoid a trial?
It is important to remember that everything is negotiable at all times. Dialogue is key. Often, the first step is not to file a claim but to try talking to the other person first. If that does not work, write and send a letter to that person outlining your grievance and what you are asking for and why you deserve to get it. If a letter from you is unsuccessful, ask a lawyer to write a letter threatening to file a lawsuit if the dispute is not resolved. However, sometimes the only way to get justice is to file a legal claim. Sometimes the act of filing a Complaint and Summons is enough to get the attention of the defendant, and he or she may suddenly become willing to reopen a dialogue and resolve the dispute. Even at the point of trial in the Small Claims Courtroom, the judge may try to find a way to resolve and settle the claim between the parties.
It is possible for a person to obtain justice without hiring a lawyer. The Small Claims Court can be successfully navigated by non-lawyers if they are willing to do some research, ask questions and persevere in following the steps of the Small Claims Court process.
Robert Monahan, Esq. is a lawyer in Gurnee, IL with his own practice in personal injury. He has a radio show on Thursday nights at 7 pm, called “Everyday Law,” on WRLR 98.3 FM, where he tries to demystify the law for the ordinary person. “Everyday Law” can be downloaded as a podcast from iTunes or other various podcatchers. His two websites are www.monahanfirm.com and www.gurneepersonalinjuryattorney.com. He also has two Facebook pages – “Robert A. Monahan, Esq.” and “Everyday Law.”