Small Claims Court
Does someone owe you money? Has your landlord failed to return your security deposit even though you did not damage the rental property? Did you pay for merchandise, but the store never delivered it and won't give you a refund? You may want to consider bringing a lawsuit in small claims court. You may not need a lawyer and the rules are simpler than in most court proceedings.
Small claims court is under the jurisdiction of the Clerks of Courts Act (705 ILCS par. 90) and Supreme Court Rule 282. Fees are based on the population of the county and designated by county boards.
Who May Sue?
Any individual or corporation doing business in Illinois can sue or be sued in small claims court. The court may require the appointment of a guardian for those under 18 years of age.
What Types Of Cases Are Handled In Small Claims Court?
Small claims court may be used only for certain types of cases. For example:
Lawsuits such as breach of contract, property damage, or personal injury.
All evictions, regardless of the amount of rent claimed.
Repossessions of property if the property consists of consumer goods which are leased or purchased on credit from a dealer, or if the value of the property does not exceed the amount that is determined by county where filed.
Garnishments to enforce judgments from funds owed to debtors.
The maximum judgment allowed in small claims court is $10,000.00 plus costs; therefore, your claim may not exceed $10,000.00.
Is an Attorney Required?
In small claims court you can handle your personal or business legal matters without an attorney; however, you can hire an attorney to represent you if you wish. If the other party has an attorney, your chances of winning might be better if you also have an attorney.
Completing the Forms (What information is needed?)
Go to the courthouse. The small claims court clerk will supply you with the necessary forms (a summons and a complaint form) to begin the lawsuit.
List your name as the plaintiff. You are the person filing the lawsuit.
The party you are suing is called the defendant. Make sure you have the correct name and address of the defendant. If the papers can't be delivered to the defendant, you might have to start over and pay additional fees.
List the amount of money you request as damages.
Include a brief explanation about why you are suing the defendant.
The clerk will assign a number to each small claim case. Write down the number and refer to it in all dealings with the clerk and sheriff.
If you should change your address after you file your case or your appearance, be certain to notify the clerk and the opposing party of your new address. This applies if you change your phone number as well.
All small claims court sessions are open to the public. You may attend any of these courtroom proceedings to familiarize yourself with the procedures.
After completing the forms, they must be filed with the court. You will be charged a filing fee which differs from county to county. The filing fee must be paid in advance.
Copies of the forms must then be "served on" or delivered to the defendant. Many counties allow service by regular or certified mail if the defendant lives in that county. The court will mail the forms for you, but will require a fee for this service.
Preparing Your Case
In preparing your case, keep in mind that your proof must be more convincing than the other side's evidence. Consider the following:
Think about how you are going to prove the defendant owes you money. Start by making a detailed list of what happened so that the facts are clear in your mind.
Gather all written information and paperwork that pertains to the situation--contracts, rental agreements, receipts, order forms, warranties, cancelled checks, or credit card statements.
Talk to people who may have witnessed important aspects of the dispute. For example, if you are suing your landlord for the return of your security deposit, ask a neutral person to testify concerning the condition of the rental unit when you started renting and when you left.
If you are suing on the basis of defective merchandise or faulty repairs, it may be very helpful to have an expert witness testify on your behalf. You might present a notarized written statement from an expert concerning the nature of the defect and the decrease in value due to the defect. However, if it becomes necessary to go to trial, you'll have to get the witness to testify in person. Full-time mechanics with several years of experience qualify as experts.
Going To Court
After your claim is filed, the court will probably set a date to review the facts in your case. Many small claims court cases are settled at this time, so come prepared to argue your case. All cases are heard by a circuit court judge and will be decided by the judge if both parties cannot reach an agreement.
Collecting the Judgment
If you win the case, ask the court to include court costs and any money you spent as part of the settlement. The court can require reimbursement for such fees as: the money paid to file the action, the cost to have the summons and complaint mailed or personally served, and any attorneys' fees.
A judgment will be entered in court stating what the opposing party owes you. In many cases, the opposing party will pay the judgment immediately. In other instances, you may find it necessary to take further informal action or consult an attorney who can proceed with more formal legal steps to collect the debt. The court will not force the defendant to pay what is owed you.
The court will order the debtor to provide a disclosure statement to you or to the clerk of the court within 15 days of entry of the judgment. The statement must contain the debtor's name and address, his or her employer and the employer's address, any real property owned by the debtor, cash on hand and financial institutions in which the debtor has funds.
If you are unable to satisfy the judgment by contacting the other party, contact the clerk of the court that heard your case. From the clerk, you can obtain the forms necessary for garnishment proceedings--if the other party receives wages or has bank accounts.
Remember, there is always the possibility that the small claims court will not rule in your favor. Carefully consider all your options before proceeding with a lawsuit. If you do decide to bring a lawsuit in small claims court, prepare carefully to increase your chances of success.