Filing a full civil lawsuit in a Virginia Circuit Court can be a lengthy and expensive process.
For cases involving relatively small amounts of money (i.e. less than $5,000), you can instead appear in small claims court to resolve the matter both quickly and easily.
In this article, we’ll generally describe how small claims courts work in Virginia.
We’ll also go over a few tips for getting the best outcome from your small claims case.
What is Small Claims Court?
Every Virginia General District Court has a small claims division attached to it.
The whole point of small claims courts is to let people handle cases involving small amounts of money without the assistance of an attorney.
Put another way, Virginia residents can use these courts to settle minor disputes without having to spend large amounts of money on an attorney.
What’s different in small claims court?
Each General District Court runs their small claims division differently.
However, there are a few common themes you should be aware of:
- Small claims courts only have jurisdiction in cases with a total value of less than $5,000.
- You must represent yourself in small claims court. If the judge determines that you cannot represent yourself, they may allow a friend or family member to represent you. However, this friend or family member cannot be an attorney.
- Small claims court cases are decided by the judge by the end of your trial. The judge can also choose to suspend the formal rules of evidence admission to simplify the legal process. Put another way, the judge can bend the rules to make your case faster and easier.
What’s the same in small claims court?
Aside from these three key differences, small claims courts function in a similar manner to normal General District Courts.
- You can bring witnesses to your case and enter evidence for the judge’s consideration.
- You should present yourself in a respectable manner (don’t swear, wear acceptable clothing, remain silent until the judge calls your case).
- Judgements made in small claims court are legally binding, and can be appealed just like any normal judgement.
Finally, you should remember that, despite being less formal in nature, small claims court still follow very specific legal procedures.
If you have questions regarding your small claims suit or the processes surrounding it, you can generally just ask the Clerk of the Court for help.
How Do I File a Suit in Small Claims Court?
Small claims courts generally hear two types of lawsuit:
- Cases seeking money judgements for damages.
- Cases seeking the return of specific pieces of property.
For the former, you will need to file a “warrant in debt” form with the Clerk of the Court.
For the latter, you will instead fill out a “warrant in detinue” form.
In either scenario, you must give the following information to the Clerk before they’ll accept your case:
- The name and current address of the defendant.
- The amount of money or specific property you are seeking a judgement about. If you are seeking the return of a specific piece of property, you should also include an estimate of its value.
- The reason for the claim.
- The filing fee, as well as any sheriff’s fee for serving the warrant.
Although you aren’t required to do so, you should also mail a copy of the warrant to the defendant and complete a certificate of mailing.
By doing so, you ensure that you’ll be able to get a judgement even if the defendant doesn’t come to court.
Should I contact the defendant before filing a suit?
In general, you should try to minimize legal contact with the person you will be suing.
However, sending a polite, formal demand letter can work in your favor, especially if you keep a copy to be used as evidence in court.
Judges tend to favor individuals who try to solve their problem in a reasonable way outside of court.
In this way, having a formal demand letter from when you previously tried to resolve the issue can only help you in court.
Outside of this formal letter, you should avoid talking to the person you’re filing a claim against.
Similarly, you should avoid talking about the case on social media. Doing so could have significant and unexpected consequences.
What if the defendant doesn’t show up?
If the defendant fails to appear in court, one of two things can happen.
On one hand, the judge could simply decide to delay the case.
This generally happens when the court cannot locate the defendant, and thus cannot provide them with proper notice of the case.
In such an event, you may have to either ask to reschedule, give up your case, or hire an attorney to explore your other options.
On the other hand, the judge could choose to hear the case without the other party.
This generally occurs when the defendant has notice, but refuses to come to court.
It may also occur when the judge feels that you have enough evidence to prove your case regardless of what the defendant does.
In this situation, the judge will issue a default judgement in your favor.
How Do I Argue a Case in Small Claims Court?
Respectfully and carefully.
While the standard courtroom rules are relaxed somewhat during a small claims court, you should still be mindful of general courtroom procedures.
In most cases, you’ll simply have to present your evidence to the judge and have them decide on the matter.
However, small claims court is still a legal institution where a high standard of decorum applies.
This means that you are expected to be polite, follow the instructions of the judge overseeing your case, and to present your arguments as concisely and thoroughly as possible.
Similarly, remember that you are in court to lay out the facts of your case before a judge, not to bicker with the defendant.
The judge will only care about the evidence you can present to support your side.
Using Evidence in Small Claims Court
A common mistake people make is to appear in court without any evidence to back up their claims.
As demoralizing as this may sound, small claims court is often about who can present the most convincing evidence, not about a moral high ground of who is “right” in any particular situation.
For this reason, you should take extra care to present evidence and facts, not opinions or personal testimony.
Similarly, you should clearly state your damages, losses, and the reason you are seeking a judgement before you explain your case.
This can help the judge contextualize why you’re appearing in court.
Ultimately, small claims court can be an excellent option for small but important monetary disputes.
Going in to a small claims case, the best thing you can do is come prepared.
No matter how strong a case you have, if you can’t explain your argument you are unlikely to succeed in small claims court.
However, if you lay out your case in a concise, thorough, and professional manner, you’re much more likely to receive a judgement in your favor.
While it’s relatively rare, cases in small claims court do sometimes end up being removed to the General District Court.
If this happens, you should consider consulting an experienced Virginia lawyer on how to proceed.