Consumer Law

Small Claims Court Terms

Don't be confused by small claims court jargon. Here are definitions for the most commonly used small claims terms.


Affidavit - a written statement of a witness, sworn "under penalty of perjury" to be the truth.

Appeal - a rehearing of the parties' claims in the next highest court.

Attachment - collecting on a judgment by taking the judgment debtor's real estate.

Bond - a money deposit left with the court to keep the judgment creditor from collecting what is owed while the judgment debtor appeals the judgment.

Complaint - written statement made by the plaintiff detailing the legal claims against the defendant. Filing the complaint with the court kicks off the small claims process.

Contempt of court - deliberately disobeying a court order. Could result in fines or even criminal sanctions.

Continuance - rescheduling the case to another date. Usually the party asking for the continuance must have a good reason.

Contract - an agreement, usually in writing, between two or more people.

Costs - fees and charges the plaintiff pays to file the case or collect on the judgment. 

Counterclaim - a claim the defendant makes against the plaintiff after the plaintiff brings a small claims suit, stating that the plaintiff owes the defendant money.

Cross-claim - when one of the defendants sues one of the other defendants.


Damages - money awarded by the judge.

Declaration - a written statement, signed under the penalty of perjury, which includes the date and the place of signing. Usually includes a statement that the facts in the statement are "true and correct to the best of my knowledge."

Default judgment - a judgment awarded by the court against one of the parties because they didn't show up for the hearing.

Defendant - the person being sued.

Discovery - finding out the details of the other party's case against you.

Dismissal - when the judge dismisses the case because the plaintiff didn't come to court. Means that the defendant does not have to pay anything.

Docket - a list of all the cases a court will hear on a specific date.

Enforce - to attempt to collect on a judgment.

Evidence rules - the rules about presenting evidence - such as documents and witness testimony, to the judge at trial.

Execution - the court ordering the sheriff's office to take property owned by the judgment debtor to pay the debt that is owed.

Ex parte - having a conversation with the judge without the other party being present.

Expert witness - a person who is qualified due to their experience or background to give an opinion about a disputed matter.


Filing fee - money paid by the plaintiff to file the paperwork that starts the small claims case.

Garnishment - taking a percentage of the judgment debtor's wages on a regular basis in order to pay the debt owed.

Judgment - the amount the judge says is owed by the debtor.

Judgment creditor - the person who is owed the money.

Judgment debtor - the person who owes the money.

Jurisdictional limit - the maximum amount of money that can be awarded by a particular small claims court.


Mediation - sitting down with the other party to the lawsuit and a neutral third party to try to work out a settlement.

Motion - a party's request to the court for an order or some other kind of action. Motions can be written or oral at the time of hearing.

Notice of appeal - paperwork filed requesting that the case be taken to the next highest court for a decision.

Parties - the plaintiff and the defendant who are involved in the lawsuit.

Plaintiff - the person who files the initial small claims petition (sometimes called a "complaint") to kick off the small claims case.

Proof of service - a document filed with the court stating that a party has been properly presented with copies of the court papers.

Pro tem judge - a "temporary judge" sitting in for an absent judge.

Registered agent - a person designated by a corporation or company to receive official documents for the company.

Response - paperwork by the defendant that is filed with the court in response to plaintiff's complaint.


Satisfaction of judgment - paperwork by the judgment creditor that is filed with the court acknowledging that a debt has been paid.

Settlement - the parties coming to an agreement between themselves without involving the judge or jury.

Service - delivering the court paperwork to the person who is being sued.

Statute of limitations - the period of time during which a lawsuit can be filed.

Summons - a notice telling the defendant that he or she is being sued and must appear in court.

Subpoena - an official order of the court requiring a person to appear in court to testify.

Subpoena duces tecum - a court order requiring a person to appear in court and bring certain documents with them.

Third-party claim - a claim by the defendant against someone other than the plaintiff or another defendant, claiming that the third party is responsible for any judgment against the defendant for the plaintiff.

Trial de novo - a new trial before a different judge or in a different court.

Witness - a person who is called to court to testify about what he or she personally knows about the facts of a case.

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