What is the difference in a small claims and civil lawsuit?

By: 
DONALD WATTS, Lessons from the Bench
Many of us have turned to the court to resolve issues where we feel we have been wronged by someone else. But, how do you know which type of lawsuit is best for your situation? As a judge, it is inappropriate for me to offer legal advice on this issue, but I can share with you the differences of the two and you can decide for yourself.

Before I explain the differences of a small claims or a civil judgment, let me share with you that the court can only order that dollar amounts be paid. The court cannot order someone to do something like give back a car.
 
Small claims lawsuits are limited to a monetary judgment of $3,500. Attorneys cannot appear in a small claims action unless it is stipulated to. A civil lawsuit is limited to $10,000, and you can have an attorney represent you or you can represent yourself.
 
There are several differences in the rules when presenting a small claims vs. a civil lawsuit. The rules are much more relaxed in a small claims lawsuit. In a civil lawsuit, everyone is expected to follow the rules whether or not they are a member of the bar, which means you may need to do some research on how to present your case before you go to court. Don’t forget that the judge/hearing officer cannot offer you legal advice or tell you how to present your case.
 
A small claims hearing is generally presided over by a volunteer hearing officer who has special training offered by the Superior Court. Small claims hearing officers are appointed by the Superior Court of Arizona and because of that, their signature at the bottom of the judgment has the same effect as a judge. All civil lawsuits are presided over by a judge.
 
Only you can decide which type of case is best for your situation. It is important to make an educated decision, be sure to do your research and do not hesitate to call an attorney for advice.
 
Lesson from the bench: Always try to reach an agreement between the two of you, but, if necessary, the courts can be a great resource.
Judge Watts’ webpage is: DonaldWatts.info.

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