Generally, Small Claims Courts is a way for the average person to resolve simple disputes concerning money or property with a neighbour, merchant or customer for amounts up to $25,000 without having to hire a lawyer. Small Claims Court is quicker and cheaper than regular courts, and is run fairly informally.
However, no court is quick: it will take you the better part of a year to go through the entire Small Claims Court process, have your trial and get judgement. Then you still have to try to collect. Getting a judgement is fairly easy. Collecting is a different story.
What can I sue for?
Any individual, business or corporation may sue another individual, business or corporation in Small Claims Court. Usually you can sue for property damage, some landlord/tenant disputes, broken verbal or written contracts, bad cheques, unpaid artist fees, or the collection of personal debts. But in each case, you can only sue for the recovery of money: for example, it is not possible for a judge in this court setting to require a gallery to reinstate a cancelled exhibition. The costs associated with exhibition could be claimed, but not the mounting of the show itself.
How much can I sue for?
The amounts you can sue for are set by the province in which you are suing. The highest amount you can sue for in Small Claims Court in Ontario is currently $25,000.
Where do I sue?
You must sue in the jurisdiction of the person being sued. Thus, if the party you are suing is located in Kingston and you are in Montreal, you must sue in Kingston.
Will the courts help me?
The clerks in the Small Claims Courts offices will not tell you how to prepare your case or provide legal help. Sometimes, depending on the clerk, they may assist you in filling out the forms correctly, but don't count on it. You will have to read their information booklets and follow the instructions to the letter or your case may be tossed out. To ensure that your case goes as smoothly as possible, it's important to be clear, careful and meticulous.
What happens after I file my claim?
In order to successfully sue in Small Claims Court, you must do your homework. Look at the rules concerning procedures for filing claims, defenses, and counterclaims. You must meet the stipulated time limits, and obey the rules for service and proof of service of documents. You will need to know a little about default judgements and proceedings. Usually there will be a pre-trial conference, which may lead to an offer to settle. A rejected offer to settle will have cost consequences at trial.
You need to have all your evidence available at trial. Read up on trial procedures; you can even watch Judge Judy for tips. You will also need some understanding of what costs you can and can't ask for, as well as the proper procedures for the reimbursement of costs, the enforcement of judgements, and orders.
Small claims trials are adversarial in nature, which means that there will be a winner and a loser. Judges usually permit very informal procedures and take an active role in questioning the parties to get to the facts. When the judge is satisfied that s/he has heard all that is necessary, s/he will either render a decision then and there, or reserve the decision to a later date. If the decision is reserved it means the judge wants to think about the decision and you will get a notice in the mail informing you if you won or lost.
What can I do to better my chances of winning?
Small Claims Courts are relatively informal, but they are still courts. You will make the judge annoyed, impatient and less sympathetic to your situation if you arrive unwashed, unshaved and in dirty work clothes; if you do not have your important documents with you, such as receipts and bills of sale or warranties and other essential documents; if you interrupt or get into a shouting match with the other party when they are presenting their case to the court; or if you forget to bring witnesses to court.
You can improve your chances of winning by being prepared and presentable. Be well groomed. Wear conservative, clean clothing in good repair: dress as if you are going to church. Show proper respect and you will get the same respect in return.
Prepare in advance. Consider writing down all the points you want to make so that they are clear and in a logical order. You will not be permitted to read the list, but you can use it as a guide to ensure you cover everything. Bring all your evidence with you. Gather all the documents relevant to your case, including cheques, invoices, receipts, photographs, expert reports, contracts, warranties, broken objects, or whatever you need to demonstrate your losses and establish as best you can what the loss is worth in dollars.
If you wish witnesses to be heard, bring them with you. Do not coach them or give them memorized speeches. Simply ask them to tell what they know in their own words about the matter. The judge can and probably will question them and you. Take your time. Speak clearly, slowly and be direct. Tell the court what damages you have suffered and what they have cost you. Anticipate the judges' probable questions and be prepared to prove the damages with receipts, estimates, photos or other proof.
*Please note that all information on this page refers to Canadian laws, and in some cases is specific to the laws of the province of Ontario. The information provided in this FAQ is meant to provide an introductory and summarized answer to commonly-asked legal questions. It is not meant to replace legal advice from a trained lawyer. This information is accurate as of November, 2004; contact us if you are concerned that some of this information is out-of-date. If you require further legal advice or representation, please contact the CARFAC Ontario office.*