Filing Small Claims
You do not have to be a United states citizen to file or defend a case in Small Claims Court, but you must be at least 18 years old unless you have a Guardian Ad Litem.
Your claims cannot be more than $10,000 on a claim by a natural person.
The limit on a claim by a business is $5,000.
You cannot file more than two cases over $2,500 each calendar year.
All other claims must be no more than $2,500.
Examples of disputes that can be settled in Small Claims Court are:
- The dry cleaner ruins your garment and refuses to pay to replace it.
- Your former landlord will not return your security deposit.
- Someone dents your car and refuses to pay for it. You may only sue for money for actual damages in Small Claims court.
Claims arising out of nonpayment of residential rent due between March 1, 2020 and June 30, 2021 related to the COVID-19 pandemic, may not be filed before August 1, 2021.
Where do I file my claim and how much does it cost?
It is important to file your case in a proper court district. Depending on the reason you are suing, this can be where the dispute took place, where the person you are suing lives, where the firm you are suing does business or where an accident that led to the dispute took place.
Please refer to the Venue information listed on the right side of this page for the proper courthouse location for filing.
The Clerk of the court will ask you to pay a filing fee as follows: Filing a claim for $1,500 or less is $30. Filing a claim for more than $1,500 but less than or equal to $5,000 is $50. Filing a claim for more than $5,000 but less than or equal to $10,000 (by natural persons only) is $75. Filing a claim by person who has filed more than 12 small claims in California within the previous 12 months is $100. It is possible to apply for a waiver of the fee if you cannot afford to pay. The fee waiver form is available under the Forms & Filing, Forms Packets.
E-Filing Small Claims — Odyssey Guide & File
You may opt to electronically file your Small Claims case using the Guide & File program.
The Guide & File program asks you a series of questions about your situation. The program uses your answers to prepare the form needed to file in Small Claims Court.
Before you complete the Guide & File program make sure you do not have any questions about your situation or the Small Claims process. Some of the most commonly asked questions:
- Where do I file my paperwork? (Is this the right county?)
- How do I name a business?
- How do I sue a corporation?
- Who is the agent for service of process for a corporation?
We strongly suggest you contact the Small Claims Advisor Program BEFORE you submit your paperwork.
The Legal Aid Foundation provides Small Claims Advisor services. Contact the Legal Aid Foundation.
Once you have completed your paperwork you have the option of submitting your completed form via e-file or to print your completed form to bring to the courthouse to file.
When you submit your forms by e-file you will need to pay the court filing fee (and the applicable e-file service fee) or complete and submit the fee waiver application and order forms. You may pay your filing fee and e-filing service fee by credit card or echeck. There is an additional service fee for paying by credit card or echeck.
IMPORTANT: E-filing your forms means you will need to check to make sure your forms were accepted for filing. Once your filing is accepted you will receive an email with a link to download a file-stamped copy of your document to have served on the party you are suing. If you do not receive an acceptance email within a few days, you should log into your account to check for acceptance. The completed proof of service (after the forms have been served) will need to be filed with the Court.
Where can I obtain help on my case?
Both parties may ask an attorney about the case, but an attorney may not represent either party in court at the small claims trial. Generally, after judgment and on appeal, both parties may be represented by an attorney.
LEGAL RESOURCE CENTERS:
The Legal Resource Centers of Santa Barbara County are staffed by California licensed attorneys and assistance is available to the public. Assistance is offered in the completion of legal and court documents for various civil matters and infractions, and in properly presenting your case to the court.
Consul the Legal Resource Center:
Click here for the LRC's current schedule of walk-in and remote services.
Santa Barbara Legal Resource Center
Monday-Friday: 9am to noon, 1:30pm-4pm
Lompoc Legal Resource Center
Monday-Friday: 9am to noon, 1:30pm-4pm
Santa Maria Legal Resource Center
Monday-Friday: 9am to noon, 1:30pm-4pm
The law requires each county to provide free assistance in small claims cases. The Legal Aid Foundation provides Small Claims Advisor services. Contact the Legal Aid Foundation: https://www.lafsbc.org/contact
If you are unsure about any of the legal aspect of your case, please consult an attorney prior to filing your action with the court clerk.
Proper legal notice must be given to the person being sued. This is called service of process. After you file your suit, a copy of the Plaintiff’s Claim and Order to Defendant must be served on the defendant. You cannot serve this order; only someone other than the plaintiff and who is over the age of 18 may serve the claim form. The defendant may be served in one of three ways:
Service by a Law Enforcement Officer – You may request the Sheriff’s Office to serve the notice. It will cost $35 per defendant and they will make three attempts to serve the notice.
Personal or Substitute Service by anyone over the age of 18 who is not involved in the action. Certified Mail for $15. Only the Clerk of the Court can attempt service by certified mail.
The person who served the form must complete a proof of service form that states exactly when and where the defendant was served. The proof of service form must be submitted to the court at least 5 days before the trial date.
You must appear at the time and place set for the trial. If you do not appear in court at the proper time and date, you may lose the case by default. A judgment may be entered against you.
If you are in jail, the court may excuse you from going to the trial. Instead, you may ask another person who is not an attorney to go to trial for you. You may mail written declarations to the court to support your case.
If you believe that the plaintiff owes you money as a result of the dispute, you can file a Defendant’s Claim and Order to Plaintiff in the same Small Claims Court before the time of hearing. If you decide to file a small claims case against the plaintiff, the same rules and procedures apply.
Bring the evidence of your claim or defense (any receipts, letters, invoices, cancelled checks or photographs) with you to court. To obtain certain documents other evidence that you do not have, you can request a Subpoena Duces Tecum. This is a court order commanding a witness to bring certain documents or records to the hearing. If you have a witness that can give testimony to help your case, make sure they know when and where your trial is set. You can give them a Subpoena. This is a court order compelling the witness to appear and testify.
The Court does not provide interpreters for litigants. The Court will, however, provide an interpreter for hearing impaired persons. Litigants must notify the Court in advance if a sign-language interpreter will be needed. The plaintiffs will present their case first. Witnesses may be called and exhibits offered. The defendants will then have an opportunity to respond and present their case.
The Court does not provide interpreters for litigants. YOU MUST PROVIDE YOUR OWN INTERPRETER IF ONE IS NEEDED IN COURT.
The Court will, however, provide an interpreter for hearing impaired persons. Litigants must notify the Court in advance if a sign-language interpreter will be needed.
If you cannot attend the trial, immediately notify the other parties and the Small Claims Court in writing to try to arrange for a postponement. Either the plaintiff or defendant can submit one written request to reschedule the hearing date. Requests must be made at least 2 weeks prior to the court date for a fee of $10. If you do not show up for the trial and you have not made arrangements with the court to postpone it, the case may either be dismissed (if you are the plaintiff), or entered as a default judgment (if you are the defendant).
Only the defendant in a small claims case may file an appeal; however, the plaintiff may file an appeal on a counter claim (Defendant’s Claim and Order to Plaintiff). The appeal must be filed in the clerk’s office within 30 days after judgment or 10 days after the motion to vacate judgment was denied. The filing fee for an appeal is $75 payable to the Clerk of the Superior Court. The appeal will be heard in the Superior Court.
A judgment is good for 10 years. If you do not receive payment on the judgment in the time specified by the Judge, you have many options available to collect. Forms for these actions are available in the Clerk’s Office or on the Court’s website and must be filed with the Court.
If you know where the defendant works or banks, you can obtain a Writ of Execution. A writ is an order to the Sheriff to collect the money from the defendant’s paycheck or bank account. The fee for the issuance of a writ is $25.
Another collection option is an Abstract of Judgment. An abstract places a lien on any real property the defendant might own. The abstract is filed with the County Clerk in the County where the property is located. The fee for issuance is $25.
The debtor should complete a Statement of Assets, form SC 133. If they do not, and you do not know where the defendant works or banks, or if you do not know what assets the defendant has, you may calendar a Judgment Debtor Hearing. At the hearing, you will be allowed to question the defendant as to where he or she works and banks. You may ask the defendant about any vehicles, boats, real property, etc., that he/she owns. After obtaining this information, you may obtain aWrit of Execution from the Clerk’s Office. Take the writ to the Sheriff’s Office and the Sheriff will enforce the writ.
The application fee for the Judgment Debtor Hearing is $60; proper notice must be personally served on the defendant. If the defendant fails to appear at the Judgment Debtor Hearing, you may ask the judge to issue a Warrant of Arrest for the defendant.
If you receive payment before the trial date, you must file a Request to Dismiss. If you receive payment after judgment has been entered, you must file a Satisfaction of Judgment. Both of these forms are available at the Clerk’s Office where you filed your claim. If you fail to file these documents showing the satisfaction of payment, the defendant may be able to sue you.