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Small claims court
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Small claims court

In the law of the United States, many U.S. states have established small claims courts. These are courts of limited jurisdiction that hear civil cases between private litigants.

Typically, a small claims court will have a maximum dollar limit to the amount of judgments it can award; these limits vary with state law. By suing in a small claims court, the plaintiff typically waives any right to claim more than the court can award.

The rules of civil procedure and sometimes evidence are typically altered and simplified: one guiding principle usually operating in these courts is that individuals ought to be able to conduct their own cases and represent themselves without recourse to a lawyer. In some jurisdictions, corporations must still appear by a lawyer in small claims court. Rules of pleading are likewise simplified; in many states, no answer is required of the defendant, and default judgment is not available for failing to file a written response; instead, all matters filed in small claims court are set for trial.

Trial by jury is seldom or never conducted in small claims courts; in most states it is excluded by the statute establishing the court. Similarly, equitable remedies such as injunctions, including protective orders, are seldom available from small claims courts in most jurisdictions. For reasons having more to do with history than with the sort of case typically heard by a small claims court, most states do not allow domestic relations disputes to be heard in small claims court. In some jurisdictions, a party who loses in a small claims court is entitled to a trial de novo in a court of more general jurisdiction and with more formal procedures.

The business of small claims courts typically encompasses small private disputes in which large amounts of money are not at stake. The routine collection of small debts forms a large portion of the business of small claims courts; so are evictions and other disputes between landlord and tenant.

The movement to establish small claims courts typically began in the early 1960s, when Justice of the Peace courts were increasingly being seen as obsolete, and it was felt to be desirable to have such a court to allow people to represent themselves without legal counsel. In New York State the establishment of small claims courts was in response to the findings of Governor Thomas E. Dewey's Tweed Commission on the reorganization of the state judiciary, which issued its findings in 1958. Since then, the movement to establish small claims courts has led to their establishment in most U.S. states. Small claims courts also exist in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.