Smalls claim court is a very quick and efficient place for resolving many simple legal disputes. The process is tailored to helping normal people, with no legal training, succeed. A judge hears each side’s facts and quickly makes a decision, usually in a matter of minutes. Generally, the alternative to small claims is filing a lawsuit in the Utah district court, which may often be a much better route. Below, I briefly discuss the benefits and drawbacks of filing a claim in a small claims court versus a district court, along with some of the restrictions in small claims.
- Simple Process
The small claims process is very simple in comparison to the district court process. It is tailored for self-representation, so although you can certainly hire a lawyer to represent you in small claims, you don’t need to. The normal court rules are not enforced. You don’t need to be trained in and precisely follow the Utah Rules of Evidence, such as hearsay, expert testimony, best evidence, or many more. These rules strictly apply to district court cases.
There is also no discovery in small claims. Discovery is the process of asking for and providing documents and information to the opposing party. Rather than send information back and forth in preparation for trail, the parties simply show up for a short trial on a specific day. There is no jury, just the judge who hears the evidence and arguments for each side and then decides who wins. This simplicity is meant to help normal people with little or no training in legal matters to succeed.
The drawback to this simplicity is that you cannot search for and obtain evidence that will likely help your case. In district court, for example, you can order the other party to provide all the relevant documents in its possession that may support—and prove—your claims.
- Quick Results
Perhaps the most appealing aspect of small claims is its speed. The process can begin and end in a matter of about six weeks or so, but it could take longer. There is no discovery to make the process longer—just a court trial on a specific date.
District court, on the other hand, is not quick. It would not be uncommon for a relatively simple case to be resolved at trial two years after the initial complaint is filed, but cases are certainly resolved earlier by a motion for a pre-trial ruling or by reaching a quicker trial date. A trial will only occur after discovery is completed. For claims seeking less than $50,000, for example, the fact discovery process will last at least four months. For cases over $300,000, the discovery process is even longer—up to about seven months. In addition to fact discovery, there are motions and other procedures that delay a trial date. And a court generally won’t set a trial date unless the parties have tried to resolve things through mediation.
Although small claims is quicker in getting to a trial, it may not necessarily be less time consuming. Many people who are sued in district court never respond to the complaint, and there is no need for a trial. A judgment enters by default. In small claims, however, a trial is automatically set, and you have to show up at court on a specific day, wait your turn (which may be a couple hours or more), and then—if the other party does not show up—get your judgment, even if it is a default judgment. Although not incredibly complex, this process is more time-consuming than obtaining a default judgment in district court. For cases where there will not likely be an opposition, district court has its advantages.
The cost to file a small claims case is between $60 and $185, and the cost to file a case in district court is between $75 and $360, depending on the amount of claimed damages. After the costs of serving the complaint in small claims, there generally aren’t any other costs. In district court, by contrast, the sky is the limit in terms of expenses. In addition to attorney fees (assuming you hire an attorney), there may be deposition costs, expert fees, document production costs, and many more expenses. A friend of mine jokingly compared litigation to taking a large wad of cash and setting it on fire—a great way to get rid of money. There is some truth in this joke. Litigation is certainly expensive, and there is no guarantee of recovery, only a guarantee of expenses.
- Minimized Risk
If you are debating between going to small claims or taking a case in district court, don’t be too concerned with small claims. If a judge issues a decision against you, you have a right to appeal the decision to a trial court where the district court will do a new trial. In a way, you can view a small claims trial as a test run. If you don’t like the result, take it to the district court for a do-over. If you do like the result, hope the other party doesn’t appeal.
The appeal process in district court is different. Although a decision in district court can be appealed to the appellate courts in Utah, these appellate courts do not do a new trial. They don’t give you an automatic restart button. Rather, they generally just determine whether the district court made the right decision. Often times, if it sees an error the appellate court makes the trial court redo certain parts of the case, but the case would almost never be reset completely. Nevertheless, the cost to redo even a part of a case can be very high.
- Limited Recovery
One clear drawback of small claims is that the amount you can recover cannot exceed $11,000 including attorney fees (court costs and interest are not part of the $11,000 amount). So, if you have a claim for $30,000 in principal damages, for example, and you bring it in small claims, the maximum amount that you can recover in principal and attorney fees is $11,000.
Also, in small claims, you can only receive money judgment awards. A small claims court won’t decide disputes over property ownership, issue injunctions ordering people to stop engaging in certain behavior, or decide other non-monetary issues. For this type of relief, you have to go to district court.
- Somewhat Unpredictable
Small claims is sometimes called the “Wild Wild West.” Many cases are scheduled for the same time, and everyone sits and waits their turn to be heard by the judge. The judge is not an expert on all aspects of Utah law and does not have the luxury of making careful, well-researched decisions. Rather, in a matter of minutes, the judge sometimes is forced to shoot from the hip. In this short time, he’ll hear each side’s version of the facts, decide who and what to believe, and then apply the believed facts to whatever law the judge knows. Sometimes the judge doesn’t have enough information to make the right factual decisions, and sometimes the judge doesn’t know or understand the correct and applicable law.
Everything moves fast, and mistakes are inevitable, much more so than in district court where attorneys research and explain the law to the judge who is then able to do his or her own research over a long period of time. After evidence is gathered over months (or even years), the judge or jury carefully considers the evidence presented at trial and applies it to the correct law—at least this is the hope. Obviously, judges and juries in district court cases can also makes mistakes and can also be unpredictable (especially juries), but the slower and more thorough process of district court allows for outcomes that are more likely correct.
A Good Resource
If you want to learn more about the small claims process, the Utah court system has a self-help website that can answer many questions. If you still have questions about whether you should bring a case in small claims, questions about your pending small claims case, or questions about a potential appeal of a small claims case, give me a call. I am happy to discuss your case and your options in a free consultation. My direct dial is 801-365-1021, and you can e-mail me at [email protected].