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What is Small Claims Court?

Small claims court is a court of law, but it's not designed for lawyers. It's meant to be a "do-it-yourself" kind of court, where ordinary people can handle their own cases, whichever side they're on.

Small claims court is a place where people can go to settle their differences in cases worth anywhere up to $25,000.

It has less formal and less complicated rules and procedures than Supreme Court. For example, the forms you use in small claims court are the "fill-in-the-blank" type.

If you're thinking of making a claim in small claims court, or if you're already involved in a case, this booklet is for you. It answers questions about the court, and it describes what happens in an ordinary small claims court case. Even if you do hire a lawyer to represent you, it is helpful to know what to expect.

For more information about any of the steps along the way, see the other booklets in this series - they're listed at the back of this booklet. For answers to particular problems or questions not covered, ask at a small claims court registry near you, or read the small claims court rules.

Do I have to know "legal language"?

No. There aren't many legal words you'll have to know to find your way around small claims court, but there are a few. Here are the main ones:
  • The claimant is the person who makes a claim in small claims court.
  • The notice of claim is the form the claimant uses to make the claim.
  • The defendant is the person who is being sued - the one the claim is made against.
  • The reply is the form the defendant uses to answer the notice of claim.
  • Serving a document means getting it to another person in whatever way the law requires.
What kinds of cases go to small claims court?

As you'd expect, the cases that come to this court* involve smaller amounts of money than in Supreme Court. The highest amount that the claimant can sue for is $25,000.

This includes all claims listed on the notice of claim, no matter how many defendants there are, and it includes the value of any goods that the claimant is asking for.

It does not include any interest or expenses that the claimant might be entitled to. (The expenses that anyone can claim in small claims court are quite limited - in many cases they amount to no more than the filing fee and the cost of document service.)

There are some kinds of cases that cannot be handled in small claims court, no matter how little money is involved. Landlord and tenant cases, for example, as well as libel and slander suits and cases involving the title to land cannot be tried in small claims court.

Some cases have had an order made in another court and the orders are filed in the small claims court to collect the outstanding debt. These might include an order for restitution made in a criminal court or an unpaid fine owing to a municipality, province or the federal government. In these cases creditors file the judgment in the small claims court so that they can use any of the available enforcement options to collect the debt.
The small claims court is actually the civil division of the Provincial Court of British Columbia. Some judges in the larger centres sit only in small claims court but most sit in criminal and family court as well.

The Facts

Lois loaned $2,000 to Norman. He agreed to pay it back in six months. The due date arrived and he paid her $500 but that's all. She has tried writing and calling him, but he avoids her. Finally, she decides her only choice is to sue him in small claims court.

The notice of claim
The first thing Lois has to do is get a notice of claim form from the small claims court registry near her, and fill it out. The instructions are all included with the form.

Then she takes the form to the registry where a person behind the counter checks it for her. She pays the filing fee and the clerk gives her back several copies of the form and a blank reply form. This is called "filing" the notice of claim.

The blank reply form and one of the copies of the notice of claim is for Norman. This will tell him what the lawsuit is about and will give him the form he needs to answer it. Lois knows that he is avoiding her, so she asks a friend to take the papers to Norman. Norman then has 14 days, from the day he received the papers, to file his reply.

The reply
When Norman receives the notice of claim, he is upset. He does owe Lois money, but it was supposed to be a no-interest loan and now she says he agreed to pay 10 per cent interest. And $700 of the money she gave him was payment for repairs he did to her car. He has already repaid $500, so he figures he still owes her $800. He would pay that now if he could, but he doesn't have the money.

Norman fills out the reply form. In it he admits that he owes her $800 but says $700 of the money Lois gave him was payment for repairs he did to her car. He denies that he owes any interest and asks for a payment schedule. He says he could pay $100 a month for eight months.

Norman takes the completed form to the small claims court registry where Lois filed the notice of claim. (The address was on the form.) The staff checks the form and accepts it for filing. There is a fee for filing the reply.

The registry now mails a copy of Norman's reply to Lois. (Norman doesn't have to give it to her personally because on her notice of claim she had to give her own address where she could be reached by mail.)

The settlement conference
The next thing that happens is that Lois and Norman both get a notice in the mail telling them to come to a settlement conference.

At the settlement conference, the judge looks at the notice of claim, and the reply, and asks Lois and Norman a few questions. The judge tries to see if there is any chance the two can agree.

Lois eventually agrees that the loan was supposed to be interest-free. But they can't agree about the $700 for car repairs. Lois also isn't happy about waiting eight months to get back $800.

The judge can make a payment order right then for the $800. There will have to be a trial about the $700 difference. The judge talks to them about what sort of evidence each of them will need to bring. They agree on a date for the trial.

The trial
At the trial the judge lets Lois and Norman tell their own stories and then reply to what the other person says, and call witnesses. The judge accepts the evidence of Lois' mechanic that Norman did not do the work he said he did. The judge's decision is that Norman must pay Lois the $700 remaining on the loan.

Then the judge asks Norman how he plans to pay the judgment. Norman says that $100 a month is still all he can afford. Lois says she doesn't believe that and she needs the money sooner. They agree to come back later for a payment hearing.

The payment hearing
At the payment hearing, the judge asks Norman questions about his finances. Lois gets to ask some questions too. Finally, the judge orders that Norman pay $100 a month plus $500 in April, when he receives his income tax return.

What if the defendant ignores the whole thing?
This often happens. A person receives a notice of claim and just does nothing. If that happened to Lois, she would have to go back to the small claims court registry after the time limit for Norman's reply had passed. If she could prove that Norman had been properly served with the papers, she would get an order for payment against Norman for the amount she was claiming, and pay the filing fee for this order. This is called a default order. She could then enforce that order just as if it had been made by a judge following a trial.

What will it cost me for my case?
That will depend on how you handle your case, how the defendant responds to your claim and how you choose to proceed if you win your case.

There are fees set by the small claims rules for registry services and sheriff services. .

In addition to the set fees, there may be expenses and interest added on to the total owing. If any costs are to be added to anyone's case, the judge or registry staff will make the decision.

In most situations the fees and expenses can be added to the total amount the unsuccessful party has to pay. This means the costs the defendant had to pay may be charged against the claimant if the defendant is successful with a counterclaim.

If you do end up hiring a lawyer to represent you, the fees you pay to the lawyer can't be added to your judgment.

Anyone who cannot afford the registry fees may make an application to the registrar to be exempted from paying the fees.

If I win my case am I guaranteed to get my money?
Unfortunately, no. The court can give you tools you can use to collect your money - such as a payment hearing or a garnishing order. In the most extreme cases, when someone deliberately ignores a court order, a judge can send a debtor to jail. But some people will not pay and some cannot.

It is frustrating to spend time and money to prove a claim in court and then still be unable to collect what is owing to you. If you are thinking about making a claim in small claims court - or in any court, for that matter - you should first consider what your chances are of collecting, if you should win.

What if I don't like the judge's decision?
A small claims court decision can be appealed to the Supreme Court. But an appeal will cost money, take time and the result might not be any different.

How can I get more information?
This is one in a series of booklets available from any small claims court registry.

The titles in the series are:



CIVIL RULES - For more detailed information you may want to look at the small claims court rules themselves. The rules have been written for non-lawyers.

The people behind the counter at any small claims registry are helpful. They cannot give legal advice and they cannot fill out your forms for you, but they will gladly answer many of your questions about small claims court procedures.

The information contained in this booklet is simply an overview of the significant provisions of the Small Claims Act and Small Claims Rules. It is not intended as a substitute for the Act or the Rules, which should be examined for specific information. Also, the information is not intended to be legal advice. If you have any legal questions, you should see a lawyer.



Updated: August 29, 2005
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