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Consumer Sourcebook

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Remedies: Small Claims Court

Legal disputes can be very frustrating for consumers. The cost of hiring a lawyer is often greater than the amount in dispute, making a lawsuit unreasonable from a monetary standpoint. What, then, are consumers to do when they feel they have been wronged? The Small Claims Court is one place that minor legal disputes can often be resolved with relatively little time and expense. In New Hampshire, Small Claims Court is not a separate court. Rather, it is a procedure available in District Courts throughout the state and is sometimes referred to as a small claims session.

The Law

What Is a Small Claim?

A small claim in New Hampshire is any claim that an individual may have against any person or business in which the debt or damages do not exceed $7500. Interest due on the debt and court costs are not included within the $7500 limit. The Small Claims Court has neither the authority to resolve a dispute involving title to real estate nor "equitable power," i.e., the authority to order a person to do or not do certain acts.

The Small Claims Procedure

The small claims procedure In New Hampshire is regulated by RSA 503. It is a simple, speedy, and informal method by which an individual appears before a judge of the district or municipal court, presents his or her claim, and explains why another person or business owes money to him or her. Small Claims Court can award up to $7500 in damages (larger claims can be heard, but the maximum that can be awarded is $7500).

Although not required in Small Claims Court, any persons or businesses involved in the proceedings may be represented by a lawyer if they wish. Another aspect of a small claims proceeding is that a judge may ask to hear any evidence deemed relevant and proper since the technical rules of evidence do not apply in a small claims proceeding.

If the small claim exceeds $1500, the person or business being sued has a right to a jury trial. The defendant must file a written request for a jury trial within five business days of the filing of the small claim, unless the municipal or district court grants more time where the defendant has shown good cause. The small claim will then be transferred to the Superior Court for resolution.

Example: Lois Dandy lost a $8000 deposit on a house when her financing did not come through in a timely manner. Lois may decide to take the seller to Small Claims Court to get her deposit back – even though the maximum she could be awarded would be $7500 – because it is easier and less expensive to do so than to hire a lawyer and sue in Superior Court.

How to File a Claim

The procedure is straightforward. A claim may be filed either in the district court where the plaintiff lives, where the defendant lives, or where the legal wrong arose. The small claim is filed with the district or municipal court clerk. District Courts are usually open Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., but you may want to call the court to find out the hours before making the trip. You must file a statement about your claim called a "complaint" which includes the amount in dispute and the defendant's name and address. An application fee, which runs about $10-$35, must accompany the claim. The clerk will mail a notice of the claim to the defendant directing the defendant to respond to the complaint within thirty days and to request a hearing if desired. The hearing is scheduled at least fourteen days after the defendant responds to the complaint. You, as the complaining party, must make certain that before you appear in court there is a return receipt showing that the defendant received the notice at least fourteen (14) days before the hearing.

Even after a complaint has been filed, you and the defendant may still try to settle the dispute yourselves. As a courtesy to the court, you should always advise the clerk's office whenever a settlement is reached. If you reach a settlement, you will need to find out if the clerk's office requires any additional documents be filed to close the case.

The Hearing

On the day of the hearing, the parties appear in the court and tell their stories to the judge. Both you and the defendant must be sure to give the judge all documents and correspondence relating to the dispute (such as copies of warranties, receipts, leases, written correspondence, etc.). Also, any other persons who are witnesses (those who know about the transaction prompting the dispute) should be available in court. Based on the statements of the witnesses and other evidence, the judge will enter a judgment for one of the parties. (The "Judge Judy" television show is a very good example of how most courts handle small claims cases.)

If a defendant who has received proper notice does not appear in court, the plaintiff is usually entitled to a judgment in his or her favor. Also, a defendant with a claim against the plaintiff arising from the disputed transaction may raise that claim in court. The judge will award court costs when the plaintiff wins. On the other hand, the court will not necessarily award costs to a prevailing defendant. Furthermore, the judge's decision is final and no appeal from that decision is permitted unless an objection is raised about the interpretation of the law. Such an objection is appealed directly to the state Supreme Court.

Enforcing a Judgment

Once a judge makes a decision in the plaintiff's favor, the defendant may pay immediately. However, if the defendant does not have the ability to settle the claim immediately, the judge can order payment in installments.

If the defendant refuses to pay or engages in delaying tactics, you should ask either the county sheriff or a member of the sheriff's office about the enforcement of court judgments. One way to enforce payment is to ask the court to "attach" property belonging to the defendant. An attachment is a court order which permits the sheriff to sell the defendant's property to satisfy a judgment. Procedures for obtaining an attachment vary from county to county, so you may find it helpful to consult a lawyer.

Whether or not payment is ever actually collected, most people who have sued in Small Claims Court are satisfied. Having aired their grievances in court makes most people feel as though they have done their best, whether they win or lose legally.

  • In New Hampshire, disputes of less than $5000 and not involving real estate may be resolved in Small Claims Court.
  • You file a small claim in district or municipal court with the court clerk.
  • If there are multiple persons involved, there may be additional filing charges.
  • Before going to court you should attempt to collect what is owed to you on your own. Sending a written notice to your adversary may be enough to force settlement. Showing the judge that you gave the defendant a reasonable chance to resolve the problem may even help your case.
  • Before you get into court, be sure you have all your facts straight. Organize all documents relating to your case (written warranties, canceled checks, receipts, leases, copies of your written requests for payment, etc.).
  • If you have witnesses, tell them about the hearing date far enough in advance so that they can arrange to attend the hearing. Although witnesses are not necessary, having them may strengthen your case. One or two witnesses will likely be adequate to support your case. Be sure your witnesses know all the ramifications of the suit and that they are prepared so their testimony will be brief but complete.
  • Take time to think about how you will present your case. Write down the order in which you plan to state the facts. Planning before helps to prevent rambling later. Organization and brevity are important, but you will want to tell the judge the complete story. Details that you feel may be unimportant may help the judge to decide the case. Tell the whole story.
  • Finally, if you feel the need, see a lawyer before going to court to help straighten out the facts.
  • Bringing a suit in Small Claims Court has both advantages and disadvantages for the consumer.

Advantages:

  • In New Hampshire, lawyers are not required in Small Claims Court, and formal rules of evidence are not followed. Consumers are encouraged to prepare and present their own cases, which minimizes the overall costs.
  • The simplicity of Small Claims Court is an advantage. Complicated legal forms and language are kept to a minimum. As mentioned earlier, to get your case started, you only have to fill out a few lines on a simple form explaining your problem and identifying the parties involved.
  • The most important advantage is that legal decisions are made quickly. Most disputes are heard within a month or two from the time the complaint is filed. The judge will make his or her decision on the basis of what is presented in the courtroom and normally will deliver a decision within a few days.

Disadvantages:

  • Small Claims Courts operate only during normal business hours. Consequently, people may have to take time off from work to attend court hearings.
  • Some people may feel uncomfortable standing up in court and telling their stories to a judge. Small Claims Court should not frighten a person with no previous legal knowledge. It was designed to help you, not hurt you. The judge will not expect you to know legal jargon. She or he has been trained to speak in plain English and to ask question to get the whole story.
  • Winning your case does not always guarantee payment. If the defendant does not pay you immediately or does not pay in installments as ordered by the judge, the court can issue an order called an "execution of judgment" that will allow the local sheriff to attempt to collect the judgment for you, for a small fee. The court allows sheriffs and marshals the right to attach property or cash as collection and will do so if necessary.

Where To Go If You Have A Problem

A number of good books are available at your local library or bookstore on Small Claims Courts and how to prepare your case. These books are "how-to" books and will explain, in general terms, what you need to do to file a claim and prepare for court.

To file a small claim, contact the municipal or district court clerk nearest where you live.

If your problem is worth more than $7500, you may want to discuss with an attorney whether it would be easier to simply file a small claims suit for the $7500 maximum rather than going to "real" court.

If you have a problem with filing a small claim, contact the clerk of court where you filed the claim.

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Telephone: 603-271-3658