"A Guide to Small Claims Court"

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Chapter 1 - What is Small Claims Court?

   What you Cannot do in Small Claims Court  
   Do You Need a Lawyer?  
   The Costs of Small Claims Court
   Petition to Sue/Appeal as an Indigent

Small Claims Court is part of the North Carolina court system where people settle disputes regarding property or money worth $5,000 or less.  Every county in North Carolina has a Small Claims Court, which is sometimes called Magistrate's Court.
The judge, called a magistrate, may or may not be a lawyer.  There is no jury. The trial is quick and informal, usually lasting no more than 15 or 30 minutes. You don't have to have a lawyer to represent you in Small Claims Court, but you may have a lawyer.  The person who starts the lawsuit is the plaintiff.  The person being sued is called the defendant.

In the three (3) cases below, you would be the plaintiff:

  • 1.  A repairman came to fix your refrigerator and in the process knocked a hole
         in your kitchen wall.  The repair shop won't pay for the damages, so you
         sue the shop for your loss.
  • 2.  Someone dents your car but refuses to pay for the damage, so you
         sue that person.
  • 3.  Your landlord refuses to make your home or apartment meet housing codes,
         and you sue for damages, repairs, or lower rent. 

You would be the defendant in these three cases:

  • 1.  Your landlord tries to evict you from your apartment and collect back rent. 
  • 2.  A finance company sues you for money it claims you owe on a loan.
  • 3.  A finance company sues you for possession of property, which you
         pledged as collateral for a loan. 

What You Cannot Do in Small Claims Court

This court is not used for criminal offenses, traffic tickets, or disagreements over child support, among other things. You have to be 18 years old to use Small Claims Court. For more information about age and guardian issues, see "Age" in the Appendix.

Do You Need a Lawyer?

Before you decide to handle your own case in Small Claims Court, you need to think about whether you need a lawyer.  If you are facing eviction by your landlord or being sued by a finance company, you may need a lawyer.
If your income is no more than 125 percent of the poverty level, you may be eligible to get free legal assistance from the Legal Services office nearest you. You may want to call a Legal Aid office to find out if a lawyer can help you with your case.

The Costs of Small Claims Court

Suing someone in Small Claims Court costs money.  For each lawsuit, the plaintiff must pay a $96 filing fee* to the clerk of court.  You pay an additional $30 fee* for each defendant to cover the cost of the sheriff getting the proper legal forms to the defendant.  The plaintiff can choose to mail the papers directly to the defendant, as explained in Chapter 2 but this is more difficult and not much cheaper.  If you win your case, the court may add these fees to the amount that the defendant is supposed to pay you.
If you cannot afford to pay the fees, you may not have to pay them.  You have to fill out a form called "Petition to Sue/Appeal as an Indigent" form shown referenced below.  You get the form from the clerk.  You fill out the top part of this form and sign it before a notary public.
If you receive food stamps, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) or Supplemental Social Security (SSI), then the Clerk will automatically allow you to bring the lawsuit without paying any fees.  If you do not receive any of those benefits, then the Clerk may ask for additional financial information to determine whether you can afford to pay the costs.
There can be additional fees if you ask the sheriff's department to enforce the judge's order or want to appeal a judge's ruling.  These situations are explained in Chapter 6 and Chapter 7.
FORM:  "Petition to Sue/Appeal as an Indigent"

* NOTE:  Fee effective July 1, 2011;
                 (Sheriff's Fee effective August. 1, 20011)


**Copyright May 1990, April 1994, February 1997, March 1998, June 2001, November 2003, October 2005, Legal Aid of North Carolina, Inc.**

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