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A Guide to help prepare you for Small Claims Court

The following information on procedures is not intended to be a manual or comprehensive instruction guide. It is intended to be a short and simple informational statement about basic requirements and procedures.

WHAT IS SMALL CLAIMS COURT?

Small Claims court is an informal court which allows people to sue for losses of money or property less than $12,000. The procedures are simple enough so that people can file and handle their own claims without needing an attorney.

Who may sue or be sued? Anyone over the age of 18, a company, a government agency, or organization. If one of the parties is under 18, a parent or guardian must represent them. See the brochure on Small Claims Court for more information about who can represent the parties.

Where do I file a claim? Generally, the claim must be filed where the defendant resides, or if the defendant is a business, where the office is located. Ask the Clerk about exceptions to this rule.

What is the filing fee? It depends on the amount of the claim. The claim must be under $12,000 to be accepted in Small Claims court. The fees and costs are paid by the plaintiff at the time of filing. These amounts may be changed by law and include postage charges, so the plaintiff should check with the Clerk.

THE USUAL PROCESS

The case starts when the plaintiff files a claim with the Clerk of Court. Notice is then given to the defendant, who then has time to file an answer with the Clerk, or to try and settle the claim with the plaintiff. If the defendant does not answer and does not settle the case, a default judgment may be given to the plaintiff. If the defendant answers but denies the claim, a hearing will be set before a judge. If the defendant admits the claim, a judgment may be given to the plaintiff. The award of a judgment does not guarantee payment of the claim. Neither the Clerk nor the Court will enforce the judgment; that is up to the plaintiff. A judgment is final and cannot be appealed to another, higher court; however, a case may be removed to circuit court before a judgment is entered. Ask the Clerk for information on how to do this.

PREPARING FOR YOUR HEARING

1. Prepare even before knowing you will have to sue. Keep a file of receipts, letters, photos, records; anything that might one day become proof. In court, speaking from memory is not convincing without some other evidence.

2.Properly file your claim. Ask the Clerk any questions you have about the form. Make sure you have the complete name and address of the person you are suing. If suing a corporation, call the Secretary of State for their official address for service of process.

3. Do not trust trial information provided by the opponent. For example, if the person suing you says they have dropped the case, call the Clerk to find out if this is true. If you do not show up on time and your opponent does, you will lose the case.

4. Prepare for the hearing. In advance, organize your arguments and the evidence which supports them. Start with a quick summary of your key points. Then present each item of evidence. Explain how each item supports one of your key points. Bring copies of exhibits for the other party and the court. You will have to pay for copies if the Clerk has to make them for you, and this may cause a delay. Original documents are kept in the court file.

5. Make sure you bring the witnesses you need. If any witness will help your case, ask them to come to court with you. If any witness will not agree to come, ask the Clerk about getting a subpoena to require them to appear. There will be a fee for the subpoena, plus you will have to pay the witness some fees. A signed affidavit is not the same as a live witness and it might not be considered by the judge.

6. Don’t rely on how well you can argue. Remember that your opponent has had time to prepare, too. Don’t be surprised if they sound very convincing. You need more than arguments to beat them; you need evidence. Act professionally. Court is not the place to make personal attacks against the other party. State your position clearly and concisely. Writing down points you want to make can be helpful. Show respect for the Court and the other people by staying calm, staying on point, and not interrupting others..

7. Don’t leave anything you might need at home. Bring it, even if it’s something you might not use. It’s better to be prepared with too much proof than too little.

8. Respect court personnel and rules at all times. If the court can’t trust you to cooperate with its rules and behave properly, they may not trust the things you say, either. Neither the Clerk nor the judge can or will advise you about what you should do. You will be expected to show up on time, dressed appropriately, and ready to go. A law library is available in the courthouse for your use in researching case law, the Codified Laws of South Dakota, and rules of the Supreme Court. The Clerk’s office is NOT able to do your research for you.

9. Read other brochures.



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