You can be your own attorney in small claims court

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Shelley L. Griffin
  • 509th Bomb Wing Judge Advocate
Does anyone owe you money for a debt, personal injury or property damage? Many times, the amount owed isn't worth the expense of hiring an attorney. You could represent yourself in small claims court if the amount owed is less than or equal to $5,000. With that being said, if the claim is for more than $5,000, you may still file in small claims court, but you would waive your claim for any sum in excess of $5,000.

The small claims court system is designed for people to file lawsuits without an attorney. The hearings are conducted in an informal manner, and the formal rules of evidence and procedures do not apply.

The process is similar to what is seen on television shows such as "Judge Judy" or "The People's Court." The person bringing the action is called the plaintiff, and the person being sued is called the defendant. The plaintiff has a big responsibility to prove their case by presenting relevant documents and possibly bringing in witnesses to testify, but that effort may result in a judgment awarding money damages.

First off, the plaintiff must prepare and file a written claim, called a petition. There is a $35 fee to file a claim in small claims court. The Johnson County Circuit Court clerks can provide forms and guidance about the procedure, but they can't advise on the substantive law since they are not attorneys.

After the plaintiff files the petition, he or she must have the defendant officially served with the petition and a summons that is prepared by the circuit clerks. Then the plaintiff must provide the clerk with proof that the defendant was properly served. This can be done by either a certified mail return receipt if the defendant accepts the mail, or a summons signed by a sheriff's deputy certifying he or she has personally served the defendant.

Service by certified mail with return receipt requested costs approximately $12.49 per defendant and is done through the United States Post Office. The Johnson County Sheriff charges $30 per defendant, plus mileage cost of $12.50. Defendants must be served and be given at least 10 days to prepare their case before the trial.

Beware, if you have not been able to serve the defendant before the hearing date, your case may be continued or dismissed, unless you notify the clerk and either request an "alias summons" or make other arrangements to serve the defendant. Once served, defendants may also file counter-claims stating that the plaintiff owes them money.

About four weeks after filing a claim, the case will be heard before a judge as long as the defendant has been served with the claim at least 10 days before that time. During the hearing, the plaintiff has the burden of proving two things: the legal grounds for ordering the defendant to pay the plaintiff money, and the amount of money the defendant owes the plaintiff.

The plaintiff can prove his or her case in two ways: by live witness testimony and by documents such as a bill, contract or estimate for repairs. After the plaintiff present his or her case, the defendant may introduce evidence to prove that he or she does not owe the money. 

After receiving all of the evidence, the judge will decide if a sum of money is owed to anyone. If a defendant does not show up for the hearing after being properly served, the judge may enter a default judgment in the plaintiff's favor.
Please note, a signed judgement ordering the defendant to pay the plaintiff money does not automatically mean the plaintiff will get paid. If the defendant does not voluntarily agree to pay the judgment, then the plaintiff can take further action to try to enforce or collect that judgment.

Collection action may involve the sheriff executing against the defendant's personal property or garnishing wages. It may require further assistance from the county sheriff. For more information about the local small claims court process, contact the Johnson County Circuit Court office by calling 660-422-7413.

Although Air Force attorneys cannot represent members in state court proceedings, they may provide legal advice and guidance on preparing your case.

The Whiteman Air Force Base legal office provides personal advice on private legal matters during walk-in legal assistance on Tuesdays from 8 to 10 a.m. and Thursdays from 1 to 3 p.m.

The legal office also provides notary service and prepares powers of attorney Monday through Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

The office is located in the 509th Bomb Wing Headquarters building in suite 203.