Determine Your Injury
A small claim only allows you to seek to recover money damages in Illinois. Currently, a "small claim" is any claim less than $10,000.00, exclusive of court costs. You must determine how much money you believe you are legally entitled to from the other party ("defendant"). If you have a written contract, lease, promissory note, or other writing signed by you and the other party, look to your agreement to determine whether it sets forth your possible damages. For example, a lease agreement may provide that you are entitled to recover not only rent, but also late fees, interest and court costs. You will want to total all of these up as these will be your damages.
Obtain your forms
Many courts now have all of the forms necessary to file a small claim available online for download. You can even borrow another Illinois court's forms and simply change the name of the court to your county. The office which makes the forms available is called the Circuit Clerk. He or she will provide you the forms necessary for your small claim free of charge. Note, the Circuit Clerk's office is prohibited by law from providing legal advise and therefore will not assist you in completing the forms. The forms you will need will be the "Small Claim Complaint" and "Small Claim Summons".
Completing the Forms
The forms are fill-in-the-blank. You are the "Plaintiff". The person you are suing is the "Defendant". Print or type your name in the appropriate boxes. You will then need to set forth the amount of money you are suing for. You will sue based on the damages you previously calculated and "costs". For example you would put $xxx and costs of suit. By requesting "costs of suit" you will be able to recover not only your damages, but also the filing fee and sheriff's fee that you will have to pay. You will have to set forth a brief explanation in the Complaint as to why you believe money is owed to you. This doesn't have to be complicated. "Money Loaned and not Repaid", "Money due under a certain Lease Agreement', etc. will suffice. If you do have a writing (contract, lease) related to the debt, attach it to the Complaint and call it an "exhibit". Next, you will need to complete the Summons.
Completing the Forms Continued
The Summons---You are the Plaintiff and the other party is the Defendant. You will need to set forth the Defendant's full name and an address where the Sheriff's office can find the Defendant to hand him/her the Summons. Be sure to list an accurate and reliable address. Your case cannot go forward until the Summons is handed to your Defendant. You can list home addresses, work addresses, or any other address at which you know the Defendant can be found. You will want to fill in the Court date on the Summons if it has not already been filled out. Ask the Circuit Clerk for the Court date. When selecting a date, be sure to give the Sheriff ample time before the Court date to locate the Defendant to serve him/her.
Show up on the court date given to you by the Circuit Clerk. Dress appropriately. You do not need to have all of your witnesses and evidence at this appearance. If the Defendant doesn't show up, you will receive a "default judgment" for the entire amount you requested. If the Defendant shows up and agrees he/she owes you the money, you will receive judgment for the entire amount you requested. If the Defendant shows up and denies owing you any money, then there will be a new date given to you for your "trial". You will want to have all of your evidence and witnesses available on that date. Show up on time. While the "rules of evidence" are relaxed in small claims court, you should consider hiring an attorney if the other party has one. Judges will oftentimes enforce the rules of evidence if one or both of the parties are represented by an attorney. Not knowing the rules of evidence will be very detrimental to your case if a competent attorney is on the other side.
You won your case! You will be awarded with a piece of paper called a judgment order which will say that the Defendant owes you the money. Will he/she write you check on the spot or pay you cash? Probably not!
You will then need to collect your judgment. There are various methods available at enforcing a judgment and because this topic is so extensive, it is best covered in a separate guide. Keep in mind though, you are entitled to 9% judgment interest from the date of judgment until you are paid in full. Not a bad return! The best thing you can do to increase your chances of recovery are to act quickly to utilize your options at collecting your money. You will want to also be diligent in keeping track of your debtor's whereabouts. You have seven years from the date of the judgment to enforce it before having to file a petition to revive the judgment. While I've outlined the basic steps in obtaining the judgment, you may be best served to hire an attorney specializing in collections to help you get paid in the event your defendant does not voluntarily pay you. Wage garnishments, Citations, Non-wage garnishments, judgment liens, are just some of the tools that can be employed.
With proper planning, you can represent yourself in a small claims case. Our Country is a country of laws and if you are owed money, you should take advantage of the wonderful legal system we have in place. Best of luck!