Small claims packages are available at the Clerk's office of your local courthouse. In Florida, small claims court is for money claims up to $5,000. Once you obtain the packet from the Clerk or online, you can either complete it yourself or contact an attorney who will typically charge a consultation fee of $200 - $300 to assist you in preparation of the Statement of Claim and advise you regarding how to get your complaint filed and the defendant(s) served. This is done through the Clerk's office in the courthouse. In general, your statement of claim should be brief and state the factual points of why you are entitled to the money you claim.
Receiving The Pretrial Order From The Court
After the Statement of Claim (or Complaint) is filed, the Court arranges for the Defendant(s) to be served (typically by mail) with the Statement of Claim and a Pretrial Order which requires both the Plaintiff and Defendant to show up on a specific date. It is important to understand that when read carefully, the Pretrial Order makes clear that the date is NOT FOR TRIAL! Instead, it is simply to get both parties together, with or without counsel. If both parties or their attorneys show up, they are sent to an attorney who is volunteering his or her time to serve as a mediator. You sit with the mediator and have a discussion in an effort to settle your case. If the Plaintiff does not show up, the case will be dismissed. If the Defendant does not show up, the Plaintiff will win by default.
It is important to understand that the mediator does not have any power to force either side to do anything. The mediator does not make any decisions or side with one side over the other side. Instead, the mediator remains neutral and tries to help both sides understand the potential strengths and weaknesses of the case so that they can decide whether it is in their best interests to settle the case instead of going back to the Court and getting a trial date for some time in the future when both sides will have to come back again. During the mediation, it is important, whether you are the plaintiff or defendant, to have your documents, evidence, and anything else which helps you to explain your case to the mediator. You DO NOT BRING witnesses to the pretrial conference or mediation. If you settle, the mediator will help write up the settlement. If you do not settle, you will go back to the Court and let the Clerk know. A new date will be set for trial.
If you do not settle at mediation, a trial date will be set by the Court. Again, both sides must show up at the trial. If the Plaintiff does not show up, the case will be dismissed. If the Defendant does not show up, the Plaintiff will win by default. If both sides show up, a trial will occur. Both sides should have all documents and other facts for trial. This includes anything which would help them, photos, video, etc. Both sides should also have any witnesses. If one side needs a witness who will not appear voluntarily, then you can go to the Clerk to get a subpoena issued to require the appearance of the witness. After hearing from both sides, the Judge will make a decision and enter a Judgment.
Generally, most people do not use an attorney in small claims court. However, it might be a good idea to get a consultation with an attorney to either assist you in preparation of the statement of claim, preparation for mediation (helping you with how to best present your case during mediation), or preparation for trial (helping you with how to best present your case in front of the Judge). Sometimes, you may want to have an attorney assist you behind the scenes for trial but actually come in to represent you at the trial; depending on how much the case is worth as most attorneys will charge either a flat fee or by the hour for these services.
Post Judgment Issues
If you lose, you have the right to appeal. You should check with the Court about how to appeal and also check with an attorney regarding whether you really have legal grounds for an appeal. If you won and are the Plaintiff, you will get a money Judgment. If the Defendant does not pay the Judgment voluntarily, you can seek to have the Judgment enforced. At this point, you really should contact an attorney about how to obtain information regarding the Judgment debtors assets and how to legally seek to collect from those assets.
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