Wednesday, January 16, 2013
Taking someone to court is best used only as a method of last resort. If you are suing your landlord, contact the Austin Tenant's Council for help first. They may be able to resolve your disagreement through mediation rather than going to court. But if all else fails, the Austin Tenant's Council outlines how Small Claims Court works. Be advised, this is only an outline and if you have legal questions, you should contact a lawyer.
Small Claims Court is for civil cases that involve money of $10,000 or less. The only thing small claims court can do is give you money you are owed. To bring suit against someone in small claims court, you have to sign a sworn statement called a petition or a complaint with the justice of the peace. The plaintiff brings the suit and the defendant is the person being sued. Before you take someone to court, make sure that they have the financial means to pay you back. If they have neither the money nor the property to cover the judgement against them, you're better off just moving on because you aren't going to be paid back. Also, before you file suit, be sure that the other person can't bring a counter-suit against you and be sure that the statute of limitations hasn't run out on your complaint.
Your claim should be filed in the court of the precinct that is in the area where the defendant lives. You can find the numbers and addresses for the court in the phone book. The civil clerk in the small claims court will give you a petition. This is where you say why you want to bring suit against the defendant. You turn this form, along with a fee, into the clerk. If you have no money for the fee, you can file a pauper's affidavit.
Usually you will bring your case before a judge, but either side can request a jury trial. This request must be made at least one day before the trial and costs $5. When you file your claim, be sure you have the exact name and address of the person(s) you are bringing suit against. Otherwise, your complaint cannot be delivered.
In ten to fourteen days, you should contact the court to find out when the defendant was served. From the date the defendant is served, they have ten days to answer the charge. If the defendant does not answer in the time period, the plaintiff can ask to get a judgement by default against the defendant.
If the defendant does answer, find out from the court when your trial date is. On the date of your trial, be on time and bring any corroborating evidence or witnesses you want to present to the judge. The judge will only consider evidence you bring with you, so make sure you have everything to give yourself the best chance of winning. Also, it's best to carefully outline what you plan to say and practice it with a friend. Never interrupt the judge, always address the judge and/or jury, not the defendant, and be sure to say "your honor" to the judge. Small claims court is set up so that you can argue your case yourself, but you can hire an attorney if that is what you prefer.
There are several other steps in the process from there, so be sure to read the entire article for details on appeals, counter-suits, and collecting on the judgement.