So, you have a legal dispute with someone and your first instinct is to “lawyer-up” so that you will have great representation in your dispute. That is a pretty normal response and, in many instances, it is both appropriate and necessary. Usually, however, that will cause the party with whom you have the dispute to also feel a need to have a lawyer represent them. Before you hire an attorney, perhaps you should consider if you really need to have an attorney represent you.
Often, where a dispute centers around a small monetary debt, or a modest amount of legal damages, it may make sense to consider other options to having an attorney. Litigation is expensive and, if the debt or monetary damages in dispute is modest, the costs of litigation can easily exceed the amount of the disputed debt.
Also, as each side gears up with representation, the financial and emotional investment that the parties make in their dispute increases with their payment of attorney’s fees and court costs. As a party pays those expenses, they naturally feel that it is important that they obtain some kind of large return on their investment. And, they feel like they have to recover their attorney’s fees and costs from the other party in order to be made completely whole. However, both of these ideas can actually get in the way of a lawyer being able to do her or his job in helping the client get their dispute settled.
Small Claims Court
In California, Small Claims Courts exist so that parties can have their cases heard by a judge without having to make the financial investment that comes with hiring an attorney. Neither side is permitted to be represented by an attorney and the process is very informal and user-friendly.
Generally speaking, Small Claims Courts can only hear cases that involve demands for the payment of money or monetary damages. In 2011, the California legislature enacted law which increased the maximum dollar limit of the Small Claims Court’s jurisdiction for most types of cases to $10,000 for actions brought by a natural person. (Code of Civil Procedure Section 116.221.) This means that, if your claim is $10,000 or less, you can file your case yourself in the small claims court and have it heard and resolved there without having to incur the expense of having an attorney. In personal injury cases resulting from automobile accidents, the maximum limit is $7,500 (unless the opposing party does not have automobile insurance which requires the insurer to provide the insured’s defense), but it will increase to $10,000 in 2015. (Code of Civil Procedure Section 116.224.) And, claims filed by corporations, limited liability companies, or partnerships are limited to claims of not more than $5,000. Individuals may not file more than two claims that exceed $2,500 in any single year.
What if your dispute is with someone that you really don’t want to have to sue? Filing a lawsuit against another person, even if it is only a Small Claims Court case, usually leads to a polarization in their feelings towards you and usually ends the family relationship or friendship which you may have with them. In such a case, then consider attending mediation.
Mediation is used as an alternative to filing a lawsuit and is a process whereby the parties attempt to work their way through a dispute with the assistance of a professional mediator. The mediator does not “decide” who is right or wrong, nor does he or she enforce a particular result. Instead, the mediator works with the parties to help them find their own avenues of agreement and end their dispute amicably.
Because the parties personally participate in devising the settlement of the dispute, they are usually more willing to perform that settlement than one that a third party (usually a person who wears a black robe for a living) imposes on them. And, if you are unable to settle your dispute in mediation, you can always still go to court for a resolution.
The background and experience of a mediator is often critical to reaching a resolution of a dispute. Usually, a mediator with professional mediation training is preferable over a simple neighborhood volunteer. And, it can also be helpful if the mediator has some professional expertise in the subject matter of the dispute (e.g., in the case of a construction dispute, it may be advisable to have an engineer, contractor, or a construction law attorney serve as the mediator).
Mediation can often be done at very modest or no cost to the parties. The California Department of Consumer Affairs provides information about local mediation programs of which the public can avail themselves in trying to end a dispute. In Nevada County, that is the Conflict Resolution Center of Nevada County located in Nevada City.
In Placer County, it is the Placer County Dispute Resolution Service in Auburn. For more information about finding a mediator to resolve your dispute, you can read online at the Department of Consumer Affairs’ website (http://www.dca.ca.gov/consumer/mediation_programs.shtml). Or, you can give us a call to talk briefly about it.
So, before you hire a lawyer to gear up for waging a battle over a small dispute, give consideration to whether some other alternative to having an attorney might be advisable, such as mediation or Small Claims Court.