If you are unable to resolve your complaint through self-help or local consumer group mediation, you may wish to use the Small Claims Court. Known popularly as the people's court, this informal and inexpensive forum is designed to help you settle disputes of $7,000 or less without the aid of an attorney.

Unless your suit is based upon property damage sustained in an automobile accident, it cannot exceed $7,000. The claim may, however, be subject to statutory damages or attorney's fees in excess of $7,000 (e.g. consumer protection cases or certain landlord/tenant cases). In those cases, the base amount may not exceed $7,000 even though the potential award may exceed that amount.

What is the filing fee for a small claim?

The filing fee for small claims of $500 and under is $40. The filing fee for claims of $501 to $2,000 is $50. The filing fee for claims of $2,001 to $5,000 is $100. The filing fee for claims of $5,001 to $7,000 is $150. The filing fee for claims of property damage of more than $7,000 arising from an automobile accident is $150.

If your claim exceeds $7,000 you may wish to retain the services of an attorney and sue in another court.

Note: Should you decide to use Small Claims Court, you will be precluded from bringing the same claim to any other court.

Small Claims Court Functions

The atmosphere of Small Claims Court is informal, and the rules of the Court are simple. You can sue or be sued in this Court without being represented by a lawyer, because the more formal procedures characteristic of other courts are not required. Instead, you are allowed to present your own evidence and speak in layperson's terms.

By choosing a Small Claims Court, you waive all rights to a jury trial. Furthermore, it is only in very specific instances that you have the right to appeal to a higher court if the Clerk does not find in your favor. Defendants, however, always have the right to appeal.

If the other party has a lawyer, you are not necessarily at a disadvantage because you are representing yourself. The participation by lawyers representing parties may be limited in a manner consistent with the simple and informal adjudication of the controversy. It is the Clerk's duty to ensure all parties a fair hearing.

Selecting the Appropriate Court

Small Claims sessions are conducted in every Massachusetts District Court, the Boston Municipal Court, and the Boston Housing Court. Each District Court is informally identified by the name of the city or town where it is located. (See the Directory of Small Claims Courts at the end of this publication).

The Plaintiff (the person bringing the suit) has the option to file suit in the District court where either the Plaintiff or Defendant lives or has her/his place of business or employment. In landlord-tenant disputes, the Plaintiff could sue in the district where the property is located.

Filing Your Claim

To file suit, obtain the appropriate form, called the Statement of Claim and Notice, from the Small Claims Clerk in your district. Fill out the form completely and accurately.

You must furnish the precise legal name and address of the party you are suing. For example, John & Jane Doe Construction, Inc. You may sue any individual, business, partnership, or corporation. The legal name of a business which is not corporation may be determined by contacting the clerk at the city or town hall and requesting business certificate information. The legal name of a corporation can be obtained from the Secretary of State, Corporations Division, One Ashburton Place, 17th Floor, Boston MA 02108 or by telephoning 617-727-2850 or 617-727-9640 or online at www.sec.state.ma.us .

You can only sue for money in Small Claims Court. The amount of your claim should include both the actual dam-age done and any additional costs incurred due to the damage, such as taxi fares, postage, photocopying, and court costs.

At the time of the filing, you must pay a small court entry fee. This fee and any other court fees will be assessed against the Defendant if you win your case.

Your claim may be filed in person or by mail. However, when the papers are sent by mail to the clerk, the action is not commenced until the papers are actually received.

The Clerk will provide a copy of your completed Statement of Claim and Notice form, which will show the date and time of trial. You will also receive a Docket Number, or reference number for your suit. Use this number to identify your case when you contact the Clerk.

The Clerk then will promptly send to the Defendant by first class mail, at the address or addresses supplied by you, a copy of the Statement of Claim and Notice form. The court may provide for other means of service in individual cases as is deemed necessary.

Preparing for Trial

A week before the hearing, call the Clerk to ensure that the Defendant has received the Statement of Claim and Notice. The Clerk will inform you if the case was postponed, or if the Defendant has filed an answer. Obtain a copy and use the Defendant's answer to prepare your case more effectively.

To refresh your memory, prepare a chronological summary of events and relevant facts to facilitate your presentation. Pull together all the evidence that will help you prove your case, such as contracts, letters, canceled checks, receipts, leases, estimates, and the actual damaged goods or photographs. Bring certified copies of the applicable Attorney General's regulations if you are citing a specific violation. These are available at the State Bookstore, State House, Room 116, Boston MA 02133, telephone: 617-727-2834.

If you are suing under the Consumer Protection Act, Chapter 93A, notify the Clerk of that fact and that you may be entitled to double or treble damages under that statute. Bring a copy of your 30 day demand letter. You may also wish to schedule witnesses prior to your court date who can verify your claims or confirm your statements. If a witness refuses to participate, the clerk can help subpoena him or her. A subpoena is a court notice ordering a witness to appear in court on a trial date.

The Trial

Arrive at the Court House at least an hour before your case is heard. When your case is called, you, the Defendant, and any witnesses must be sworn in. Then, the Clerk will hear each side of the case allowing each side to develop the story with evidence and witness participation. The Plaintiff, or person suing, presents the case first. The presentation should be brief, well-organized and emotion-ally controlled. Then, the Defendant, or person being sued, presents his or her version of the case. Always speak directly to the Clerk. Don't argue with the Defendant in Court, or interrupt his or her presentation.

After the presentations, you and the Defendant may ask questions of each other. The Clerk may act as moderator, asking questions and encouraging discussion to develop all the facts in the case. If the Clerk decides that a party has set up a frivolous or misleading claim or answer, then the Clerk may award additional costs to the other party of up to $100.

If the Defendant defaults, or does not show up, and you appear for trial, you automatically win. However, you must show the Court proof of your claim. (If the Defendant appears for the trial and the Plaintiff fails to appear, the case will be dismissed. If neither Plaintiff nor Defendant appears for trial, the claim must also be dismissed.)

Options for the Defendant

Settle: The parties may come to an agreement to settle out of court even after the suit has started. The agree-mint must be in writing. Notify the Court of settlement by providing a copy to the Clerk. The original copy of this settlement, entitled Agreement for Judgment, should be signed by both you and the Defendant and filed with the Court's records, so that it may be enforced by law. Keep a copy for your records.

Answer: The filing of an answer by the Defendant is optional. The Defendant will be instructed that he or she may, if he or she wishes, submit a written answer to the claim in the form of a letter to the court, signed by him or her and setting out in clear and simple language the reason(s) why the Plaintiff should not prevail.

Default: If the Defendant fails to appear at the trial, the Plaintiff automatically wins. A Judgment and Order requiring payment of a stated amount, remains valid for 20 years. A court will require some type of showing by the Plaintiff that the claim is valid prior to entry of judgment.

Counterclaim: A Counterclaim is a Defendant's suit in reverse against a Plaintiff. The counterclaim procedure is optional. If you have a valid claim against a party suing you, notify the Clerk that you wish to file a counterclaim. For example, if a repair shop is suing you for repair costs, you might counterclaim for the cost of repairing the part improperly installed. In the answer, or in the course of the proceedings, the Defendant may set forth in writing any claim which he has against the Plaintiff. No written answer to the Defendant's claim is required and both the Plaintiff's and the Defendant's claims are deemed one case. If the Plaintiff wants more time to prepare for the counterclaim, he or she may ask the court for a continuance. (See Continuances.) A counterclaim must be filed with the Clerk at least two days prior to the hearing. A nominal charge is collected for this filing.

Continuances: Where the Defendant has been given notice, trial will not be continued to another date unless by agreement of the parties with the approval of the court, or unless there is a showing of good cause. Any motion for continuance must be in writing unless the court permits an oral application.

Decision of the Court

After hearing the arguments of both parties, the Clerk may make an immediate decision, or may require more time for deliberation, which would leave the case Under Advisement and you would be notified by mail of the final decision.

If the Clerk finds in favor of the Defendant, then the case will be over and you will receive no payments. You will not be required to pay the court costs for the Defendant. If the decision is for the Plaintiff, then the court will issue a Notice of Judgment and Order that orders the Defendant to pay you the damages and court entry fee. The Clerk may award you less than your original claim.

The Defendant has the right to appeal the decision within 10 days. The Defendant must pay an appeal fee and post $100 in cash or certified check or bond, unless the Court waives this requirement.

Collecting your money

If the Defendant fails to pay you, then you must inform the Clerk who will issue a Notice to Show Cause to you. You then must arrange to have the notice delivered to the Defendant by a county Deputy Sheriff or municipal Con-stable. The Notice to Show Cause will indicate the date and time of hearing. At the hearing, the Court will take appropriate action to recover payment.

Alternatively, you may ask the Clerk for an Execution form. This form allows the county Deputy Sheriff or municipal Constable to seize and sell the Defendant's property to recover the amount owed.

Within one year of the Court's decision, a party can apply for relief from the judgment or order. This means that the Court may decide to reverse the decision because of an error or other reasons that the Court finds sufficient. Ask the Clerk if you have any questions about this or other Small Claims Court procedures.

Sources of Help

For further information, contact the Small Claims Advisory Service, Phillips Brooks House, Harvard Yard, Cambridge, MA 02138: 617-497-5690 or on-line at: http://www.masmallclaims.org/.

For More Information

To find a small claims court, obtain contact information or location, or for further information, please visit the Massachusetts Court Website: http://www.mass.gov/courts/selfhelp/small-claims/.