Often it is not economically feasible to hire a lawyer to handle a small claim. However, the mere fact that a lawyer doesn't want to take a small case doesn't mean that your case isn't important to you, or that it does not have merit.
Magistrate Courts in each of Georgia's 159 counties have "small claims" jurisdiction up to $15,000. This means that many small claims for property damage and minor injuries may be handled efficiently in Magistrate Court. Even if you have a claim for a slightly greater amount, you may choose to voluntarily limit it to $15,000 in order to take advantage of the Magistrate Court's streamlined procedure.
After a Magistrate Court makes its decision, either party may appeal and demand a "de novo" jury trial. However, if the defendant appeals a Magistrate Court judgment, the plaintiff may claim more than the $15,000 that is allowed in Magistrate Court.
These courts are informal and relatively "user friendly". Cases can be filed by going to a Magistrate Court clerk's office, completing a form, and paying a modest filing fee. Many Magistrate Courts have evening sessions for the convenience of working people. A great many small claims are handled without lawyers on either side, and a nonjury trial may often be completed in less than an hour.
Before handling your own small claim in Magistrate Court, you should review:
- Video tutorials provided by the Georgia Magistrate Court System
- Pertinent Code sections (O.C.G.A. §§ 15-10-43 and 15-10-44)
- Uniform Rules of Magistrate Court,
- “Frequently asked questions” from the Office of Consumer Affairs
- Magistrate Courts forms and
- Any substantive laws affecting your claim in the Official Code of Georgia.
Look up the registered agent of any corporate party.
Look up information for the Magistrate Court of the county where the defendant resides, or where a defendant business is located.
You may then contact the Magistrate Court office in the county where the defendant resides or the defendant business is located, and request specific information about where and how to file your small claim.
If you choose to represent yourself in Magistrate Court, you may consider some of these general admonitions:
- Evidence and witnesses are crucial to proving your case. Never expect the Magistrate to just take your word for it.
- If you are bringing the case, you have the burden of proof, so prepare your evidence meticulously.
- Evidence is anything that supports your position, including photographs, medical bills, canceled checks, and written contracts.
- Your documents should be organized, marked as exhibits, with copies for the court and the other side.
- If you need to secure the attendance of a witness, you can obtain a subpoena from the court and serve it on the witness with the statutory witness fee and payment for mileage. There are special statutes regarding subpoenas to local police and deputy sheriffs and to state law enforcement officers.
- Rehearsing witness testimony to avoid surprises or slip-ups is not only ethical; it's essential.
- While live testimony of witnesses is best, evidentiary and procedural rules may be relaxed in Magistrate Courts "so as to do substantial justice between the parties according to the rules of substantive law." Therefore, Magistrates may consider affidavits (written statements sworn to before a notary) if a witness can't come to court. For example, you might use an affidavit from a physician about your injury. (See Georgia?s medical narrative statute, but make sure the doctor's narrative is sworn to before a notary.) You might also consider using in Magistrate Court an affidavit from a mechanic about the cost of repairing your car, or from a car dealer about the diminished value of your car. To be safe, check with the clerk of Magistrate Court to find out whether that Magistrate customarily allows such affidavits in lieu of live testimony.
- To make a convincing presentation, you should practice. Lawyers with decades of experience should not just wing it, and neither should you.
- You might start by describing the event that gives rise to your claim in just two or three sentences. Then fill in the events that led up to your loss. That is when you should present evidence.
- The whole hearing may take just 15 minutes or so. Prepare to make your case succinctly but convincingly.
- Dress nicely and stay calm at all times.
- Speak only to the Magistrate, except to ask questions of witnesses.
- Don't argue with the other side or with the Magistrate.
- Above all, forget everything you may have seen on "People's Court" or "Judge Judy." Real courtrooms generally aren't that theatrical.
- You might also purchase a book or DVD for further guidance before undertaking to represent yourself on a small claim in Magistrate Court. These are not specific to Georgia procedures, may be downloaded on Amazon Kindle.
- Filing and Winning Small Claims for Dummies
- Everybody's Guide to Small Claims Court (National Edition)