Small-claims courts serve a vital function

Ken Garten
Legal perspectives
Ken Garten

Every circuit court in Missouri is required to maintain a “small claims” docket.

Small claims court is exactly that, a court where individuals and companies can file civil lawsuits, without the necessity of legal counsel, and have a judge hear their story and review their documents, without formal or technical rules of evidence, and render a decision.

When I started practicing law many years ago, the small claims court limit was $500. In the years since, there has been a legislative progression where the limit has gone up to $1,500 in 1988, to $3,000 in 1995, and to $5,000 in 2011, where it remains today.

And I have often told prospective clients that the small-claims limit is something of an indicator of the size of dispute that is not economically feasible to pursue or defend with counsel.

Missouri law provides that the circuit court clerks of the state provide forms and information to parties interested in or needing to file a claim in small claims court. Forms and information about small claims court in Jackson County can be found on the Sixteenth Judicial Circuit website under “Forms and Fees."

Small-claims court is the only court where entities such as corporations and limited liability companies may be represented by an owner or manager who is not an attorney.

A party is not allowed to file more than 12 small-claims lawsuits in any calendar year. This is to prevent businesses from using the small-claims system to do mass collections without the necessity of counsel. That’s not the purpose of small-claims court.

Instead it is to provide a forum for the airing of grievances that may arise between citizens, as an alternative to taking matters into one’s own hands, something that can give arise to another kind of legal problem.

Because anybody can walk into the courthouse and file a small-claims court lawsuit against anybody else, the court is authorized to issue an order denying any party access to the small-claims court for up to a year to prevent harassment or oppression.

Any party unhappy with the outcome of their small-claims case may file an application for trial de novo – a circuit court do-over – where the case gets transferred to a circuit court division for a new trial under more formal rules.

Perhaps the biggest problem with securing justice in the small-claims court is the same as in the circuit court: collecting the judgment you win.

Those who’ve been there know that, yes, even when you win a judgment, that doesn’t in and of itself put any bread in your pocket. As it is a judgment creditor’s burden to collect what they may win, through execution, garnishment, and any other means.

And that is often the most difficult challenge in the process.

Ken Garten is a Blue Springs attorney. Email him at krgarten@yahoo.com.