Small Claims Court

Before entering Small Claims Court, learn some of the basics

What is Small Claims Court?

Small Claims Court is a special part of the District Court that was set up for people to represent themselves in simple civil cases and to settle their disputes without having to hire lawyers.

I don't know anything about the law; how can I represent myself?

You do not need to know anything about the law in Small Claims Court. The Judge knows the law. You just tell your story in your own words. The Judge listens to you and to the person who sued you. You both have the right to have witnesses tell what they know. You both also have the right to show the Judge evidence. The Judge listens to everybody, looks at all the evidence and asks both sides questions. Then he or she decides who is right.

What if I agree that I owe money?

If you agree that you owe money to the Plaintiff and do not disagree with the amount he/she is asking for, you should call the Plaintiff and maybe you can make an agreement without going to Court. If you do reach an agreement, you may let the court know before or at the hearing. You may still be required to pay the Plaintiff’s costs (generally filing fees and service fees) in addition to the amount owed.

If you disagree with the Plaintiff, you must attend the hearing.

What if I will have a problem getting to the court or being understood because I have a disability or language problem?

If you have a disability (for example you are blind or hearing impaired) and you need to make special accommodations to use the Court, you should contact the court as soon as you receive the papers with a hearing date to make arrangements.

You should also contact the Court immediately if you do not speak English as your first language so that they can make sure that an interpreter is available to help you.

Does my case have to be heard in Small Claims Court if it was filed there?

No, you can choose to keep the case in Small Claims Court or you can choose to move the hearing to District Court. If you choose to move the hearing to District Court, you may want to hire an attorney to help you. You should find an attorney before the scheduled hearing date

What if I choose to leave my case in Small Claims Court?

If you choose to leave the case in Small Claims Court you should be aware that there are certain rights that you give up. These rights are:

  • You give up the right to an attorney. Neither you nor the Plaintiff can have an attorney in Small Claims Court.

  • You give up the right to a jury trial. An attorney magistrate or a judge will try your case.

  • You give up the right to appeal the judge’s decision. You may appeal the decision of an attorney magistrate to the district judge if you ask for this appeal in writing within 7 days after the trial.

What if the Plaintiff owes me money? Can I bring that up in this case?

Yes, if you think that the Plaintiff owes you money, you can file a counter-claim against the Plaintiff. You do this by filling out a Small Claims Court Affidavit and Claim form (available from the clerk in charge of Small Claims filings at the courthouse). You should add the words "Counter-Claim" over the words "Affidavit and Claim" at the top of the form and write the case number from your court papers in the blank space for the Case No. at the top of your form. You then take the form to the Court for filing. Make sure that you don’t sign the bottom portion that needs to be notarized until you are either in front of a notary or in front of a District Court Clerk. You do not have to pay a filing fee or service fee, but a copy of your Counter-Claim has to be mailed to the Plaintiff.

Automated versions of these court forms can be found online at the site, which can be filled out and printed free of charge. Clink on the following link to redirect to the Automated Court Forms page.

How do I get ready for court?

Before you go to Court you should get your case together.  Think about all of the reasons that you do not believe that you owe the money or that the amount claimed is not correct.  Think about what information you will need to prove that.  Start putting all of the papers, names of people with addresses and phone numbers and other information such as pictures that prove your side of the case in a file or envelope.

If you need to take the day off, you should let your boss know in advance so that you can be in Court and on time.

If you have children, you should make arrangments with a babysitter.  You should not take the children unless they are directly involved in the case and are old enough to be witnesses.  If you must take the children with you, you should arrange for a friend or relative who is not involved in your case to go with you so that they can watch the children.

What else do I need to do?

Get all your evidence together. Evidence is anything that has to do with your case. Evidence can be things like photographs, receipts, written agreements, letters or notes to you or from the Plaintiff, or notes and letters that you have written to the Plaintiff. Make sure your evidence has to do with the case.

Get your witnesses ready. Witnesses are people who know things about the case. Witnesses can be anybody: friends, relatives, neighbors, building inspectors, mechanics and so on. Be sure to talk to people ahead of time so that you know what they are going to say to the Judge. Make sure that your witnesses will be in Court. The best witness in the world is no good if that witness does not show up for Court. If there is anyone important who might not show up, ask the District Court Clerk for a subpoena for that person. A subpoena is a Court paper that makes a person come to Court. If you want a subpoena, you have to pay a witness fee (ask the Court Clerk how much that is), mileage to the courthouse for the witnesses, plus a service fee (as of March 2001, the service fee is $16.00 plus mileage). The Clerk at the Court can help you fill out the subpoena. Remember to do this at least 10 days before your Court date.

Practice what you want to say in Court. Go over what you want to say in Court. Make notes on the important things that you want to remember to tell the Judge. It sometimes helps to have a friend who does not know all the facts listen to your story to see if you make sense.

What should I do the day of the hearing?

Show respect for the Court. Your clothes should neat and clean. Don't wear short shorts, tank or halter tops, or T-shirts with crude sayings.  Take off your hat in the courtroom. Do not chew gum or take food or drinks into the courtroom. Too little makeup is better than too much.

Show up at the courthouse a little early. Some Courts want you to sign in with the Clerk so that the Judge knows that you are there. Be sure you are in the Courtroom on time.

What if I do not show up?

If you do not show up the Judge will usually sign a Judgment against you for the amount the Plaintiff wanted plus Court costs.

What if I win?

If you win and did not file a counter-complaint, the case is dismissed and you owe the Plaintiff nothing. If you filed a counter-complaint and win on that, the Plaintiff may owe you money.

What if I lose?

The Plaintiff will have a money judgment against you saying that you owe them a certain amount of money. It is important to note that before the Plaintiff can garnish your wages or any other source of income, the Plaintiff has to file a motion with the court.

What if I can't afford to pay the judgment all at once?

If you do not want your wages or bank accounts garnished, you may file a motion for installment payments. (See our pamphlet Motion for Installment Payments). If you are on Public Assistance, Unemployment or Social Security and have no other source of income, the Plaintiff will probably not be able to garnish your money. The Plaintiff generally cannot garnish welfare checks. The Plaintiff cannot garnish Social Security checks. But Judgments are good for 10 years, so if you ever do go back to work, the Plaintiff can try to force you to pay then. If the Plaintiff tries to garnish a bank account and the only money in the account is from welfare, unemployment, or Social Security, you should file written objections to the garnishment with the Court within 21 days of receiving the motion for garnishment. Be sure to go to the hearing with proof that your only income is from those sources.

For more information on Small Claims Court you can view other articles on this site: Small Claims Self Help Website, and the Michigan Automated Court Forms page.

To locate free or low cost legal assistance:

  • Visit the home page and search for local assistance by entering your zip code in the box marked “Find a lawyer, organization or related service to help you with your problem.” or

  • Look under "attorneys" in the yellow pages to find your local legal aid office, or

  • Contact the Michigan State Bar Lawyer Referral Service at (800) 968- 0738. 

  • Persons age 60 or older, regardless of their income, may be able to receive free advice from the Legal Hotline for Michigan Seniors by calling (800) 347-5297.

This article appears courtesy of Legal Aid of Western Michigan.