Small claims courts are courts of limited jurisdiction that are designed to hear civil cases between private litigants. Their purpose is to prevent the formal court system from being clogged with relatively petty matters through a less formal forum. Small claims courts also limit the judgments awarded. This limit is generally set at $5,000 – though it may vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
The rules of civil procedure and evidence are typically simplified in small claims proceedings to allow non-lawyers to litigate their matters without the help of a costly attorney. Formal and costly procedures such as depositions are not allowed in small claims, and generally speaking, neither is a trial by jury.
Filing Small Claims in Harris County
Any individual or company (aside from a business primarily engaged in lending money with interest or a collection agency) can file in Harris County Small Claims Court for damages of up to $10,000.
In order to file the case, you will first need to make a statement of the claim under oath. This is done in one of two ways: (1) appearing in person before the Justice of the Peace or the clerk and filing a statement of the claim under oath, or (2) filing a sworn Small Claims Petition with the Justice of the Peace or clerk of the court. After filing, the Justice of the Peace will collect $34 in fees for the filing of the claim.
After filing, the defendant must be notified by citation, which will be issued by the Justice of the Peace or the clerk. This citation is directed to the defendant and informs him or her of the date of the filing, the case number, the names of the parties, and the details of the claim against them. It also warns the defendant about the risk of losing the judgment by default should they not appear on the date specified.
The defendant may be served either by personal delivery or registered certified mail addressed to the defendant, with return receipt requested. If the plaintiff is unsuccessful in his or her attempts to serve the defendant with the citation, he or she may request an alternative method of service, supported by an affidavit that states previous attempts to serve the defendant were unsuccessful and that the method of service that is being requested will be effective. The Justice of the Peace may also authorize service by leaving a copy of the citation with any appropriate person over the age of 16. There may be fees due to Harris County if service requires the use of county constables.
If the defendant does not file a response with the court or fails to appear at the specified hearing, then the Justice of the Peace will enter a default judgment in favor of the plaintiff for the amount that the plaintiff has shown is owed to him or her. If the plaintiff does not appear, then the Justice of the Peace may dismiss the case, and depending on the circumstances, the plaintiff may not be able to re-file the claim.