Small Claims Glossary



A term used to describe evidence that may be considered by a judge in your small claims case. The rules of evidence are relaxed for small claims cases so even if you’re not sure if your evidence would be “admissible”, it’s always best to bring it to court and hand it to the judge anyway.


A new hearing of all of the claims by the superior court.

The formal written statement by a defendant in a civil case that responds to a complaint, articulating the grounds for defense.


Enforcement of a judgment against the judgment debtor’s checking or savings account at a bank, savings association, thrift and loan, or credit union.

Burden of proof

The duty to prove disputed facts. In small claims (and other civil) cases, a plaintiff generally has the burden of proving his or her case. In criminal cases, the government has the burden of proving the defendant’s guilt. (See standard of proof.)


Case file

A complete collection of every document filed in court in a small claims case.

Case law

The law as established in previous court decisions. A synonym for legal precedent. Akin to common law, which springs from tradition and judicial decisions.


The number of cases handled by a judge or a court. The judge handling your small claims matter may often also handle many other types of cases, including larger civil cases and criminal cases.


In some jurisdictions, a small claims court commissioner is an attorney hired by the court to hear small claims court cases.

Claim Splitting

Dividing a claim and filing two lawsuits to stay below the limits on amounts of claims. Claim splitting is prohibited in most cases.

Clerk of court

The court officer who oversees administrative functions, especially managing the flow of cases through the court. The clerk’s office is often called a court’s central nervous system.


A written statement that begins a civil lawsuit, in which the plaintiff details the claims against the defendant. (sometimes known as “Statement of Claim” or “Statement of Case” in small claims court).

Consumer debts

Debts incurred for personal, as opposed to business, needs.


A request to postpone a court date.

An agreement between two or more people that creates an obligation to do or not to do a particular thing.

Certain fees and charges a party pays to file and present a case or to enforce a judgment.

Government entity authorized to resolve legal disputes. Judges sometimes use “court” to refer to themselves in the third person, as in “the court has read the briefs.”

Court reporter

A person who makes a word-for-word record of what is said in court, generally by using a stenographic machine, shorthand or audio recording, and then produces a transcript of the proceedings upon request.

A person to whom or business to which the debtor owes money or that claims to be owed money by the debtor.


Money that a plaintiff claims and a defendant pays a plaintiff in a civil case if the plaintiff has won. Damages in small claims court are nearly always “compensatory” which means they’ll be equal to the dollar value of the claimant’s losses for injuries.


When a party to the lawsuit fails to attend the small claims court hearing. If the party was properly notified of the action (served), the judge may hear and decide the case without hearing the absent party’s side.

Default Judgment

A judgment awarding a plaintiff the relief (money damages) sought in the complaint because the defendant has failed to appear in court or otherwise respond to the complaint.

An individual (or business) against whom a small claims lawsuit is filed (i.e. the person being sued).


The defendant’s facts or arguments that demonstrate why the plaintiff is not entitled to the relief requested.

Dismissal with prejudice

Court action that prevents an identical lawsuit from being filed later. This is the type of dismissal that occurs when the parties enter into a voluntary settlement agreement through which one party agrees to dismiss the case in exchange for the payment of a sum of money by the other party.

Dismissal without prejudice

Court action that allows the later filing, i.e. when rights or privileges are not waived or lost. Sometimes a party may file in small claims court and for one reason or another the case will be dismissed. If the lawsuit is dismissed without prejudice, it allows a new suit to be brought on the same cause of action.


To put a small claims judgment into effect by taking legal steps to bring about compliance.

Information presented in testimony or in documents that is used to persuade the judge to decide the small claims case in favor of one side or the other.

Executory contracts

Contracts or leases under which both parties to the agreement have duties remaining to be performed. If a contract or lease is executory, a debtor may assume it (keep the contract) or reject it (terminate the contract).


To place a paper in the official custody of the clerk of court to enter into the files or records of a case.



One who promises to be responsible for the debt or default of another. For instance, if someone loaned you money but someone else “co-signed” that agreement, the co-signor would be the guarantor.

Good cause

A good reason. For example, a party must have good cause (better than not having a car or not being able to find a baby-sitter) for not attending the small claims court hearing.



Evidence presented by a witness who did not see or hear the incident in question but heard about it from someone else. With some exceptions, hearsay generally is not admissible as evidence at trial. However, in small claims cases, some related rules of evidence are relaxed.



The process of calling a witness’s testimony into doubt. For example, if you can show that the other party’s witness may have fabricated portions of his testimony, the witness is said to be “impeached”.


A court order preventing one or more named parties from taking some action. A preliminary injunction often is issued to allow fact-finding, so a judge can determine whether a permanent injunction is justified. You may not obtain an injunction in small claims court – the only remedy that may be obtained is monetary relief (i.e. damages).

Insider (of corporate debtor)

A director, officer, or person in control of the debtor; a partnership in which the debtor is a general partner; a general partner of the debtor; or a relative of a general partner, director, officer, or person in control of the debtor.

Insider (of individual debtor)

Any relative of the debtor or of a general partner of the debtor; partnership in which the debtor is a general partner; general partner of the debtor; or corporation of which the debtor is a director, officer, or person in control.

Installment Payments

Weekly, monthly, or other scheduled payments on a debt.

1. The disputed point between parties in a lawsuit; 2. To send out officially, as in a court issuing an order.


An official of the Judicial branch with authority to decide lawsuits brought before courts. Used generically, the term judge may also refer to all judicial officers, including Supreme Court justices. In small claims court, it refers to the person who will decide your case – usually a civil judge or a neutral volunteer attorney.

The official decision of a court resolving the dispute between the parties to the lawsuit. This is different than a verdict, which is the decision of a jury. Since there are no juries in small claims cases, you will not receive a verdict – only a judgment.

Judgment Creditor

The party (who may be the Plaintiff or the Defendant) in whose favor a judgment has been awarded.

Judgment Debtor

The party (who may be the Defendant or, less often, the Plaintiff on a defendant’s claim) against whom the judgment has been entered.

The legal authority of a court to hear and decide a certain type of case. It also is used as a synonym for venue, meaning the geographic area over which the court has territorial jurisdiction to decide cases.

Jurisdictional Limit

The maximum monetary amount that may be awarded by the small claims court. i.e. in California, the limit is $5,000 or $10,000 for most claims, but a claimant cannot file more than two small claims court actions for more than $2,500 anywhere in the state during any calendar year. If you file on Squabble, the app will automatically inform you if you’re seeking an amount that exceeds x the small claims maximum in that jurisdiction.


The group of persons selected to hear the evidence in a trial and render a verdict on matters of fact. There are no juries in small claims cases; your case will be decided by one person – the judge.


Keeper levy

A judgment enforcement procedure in which the levying officer takes over the operation of the judgment debtor’s business for a limited duration to obtain cash and credit card receipts for payment to the judgment creditor.


A legal action started by a plaintiff against a defendant based on a complaint that the defendant failed to perform a legal duty which resulted in harm to the plaintiff.


A charge on specific property that is designed to secure payment of a debt or performance of an obligation. A debtor may still be responsible for a lien after a discharge.


A case, controversy, or lawsuit. Participants (plaintiffs and defendants) in lawsuits are called litigants.



A more friendly, out-of-court alternative used to settle disputes. Many jurisdictions attempt to resolve a small claims case through this process after filing but before it goes to a judge. If the parties agree to a resolution, they enter into a settlement agreement where one party agrees to pay the other a sum of money and the other agrees to dismiss the case with prejudice (see dismissal with prejudice).


A request to the court to do something (i.e. to “make a motion”).


Personal Service

Service of court papers by handing a copy of the small claims complaint and summons to the person who is served (nearly always must be done by an appropriate third party).

A person or business that files a formal small claims complaint with the court (i.e. the party suing).


Written statements filed with the court that describe a party’s legal or factual assertions about the small claims case. The Statement of Claim (or Complaint or Statement of Case) you filed through Squabble is an example of a pleading.


A court decision in an earlier case with facts and legal issues similar to a dispute currently before a court. Judges will generally “follow precedent” – meaning that they use the principles established in earlier cases to decide new cases that have similar facts and raise similar legal issues. A judge will disregard precedent if a party can show that the earlier case was wrongly decided, or that it differed in some significant way from the current case. Usually it’s not too necessary to research precedent before your hearing in front of the judge – it’s best to know your facts well and prepare your evidence well.

Pro per

Someone who represents themselves, serving as their own lawyer in a small claims court case. (sometimes referred to as “pro se”). Parties in small claims are nearly all pro per (per se) litigants, i.e. they don’t have lawyers.

Pro Tem Judge

An attorney who volunteers his or her time to hear and decide Small Claims Court cases. Also called a temporary judge.

The rules for conducting your small claims lawsuit; there are rules of civil procedure that govern the mechanics of your small claims case or rules of submitting evidence, which govern what proof you’re allowed to show the judge.

Process Server

A person who serves court papers on a party to a small claims suit.


The delivery of papers to the appropriate party to inform them of some legal event. In small claims, this almost always refers only to the plaintiff’s formal notification (through a third party) to the defendant that they’ve been sued. This can be made by certified mail, or by personal service, or by substituted service, depending upon the jurisdiction and the circumstances.


Parties to a lawsuit resolve their dispute without having a trial. Settlements often involve the payment of compensation by one party in at least partial satisfaction of the other party’s claims, but usually do not include the admission of fault.

Standard of proof

Degree of proof required. In criminal cases, prosecutors must prove a defendant’s guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt” (98%). In small claims cases, courts only require proof “by a preponderance of the evidence” (50 percent plus).

A law passed by a legislature. When you’re suing, usually it’s because the other party committed some “common law” wrong, like a broken contract or a tort claim recognized by the court. But other times, the defendant may have violated an actual code of the state, which would be called a “statutory violation” – this is less common in small claims than a common law action.

The time within which a lawsuit must be filed. The deadline varies, depending upon your state and upon the type of small claims case. For instance, many jurisdictions give you four years to sue for a broken contract, but only two years for a personal injury. Squabble provides notifications when parties attempt to file outside the statute of limitations. It’s always best to conduct independent research though because Squabble isn’t your attorney.

Substituted Service

Service of process on a party by leaving the court papers with someone other than a party to the lawsuit, valid only if certain specified procedures are followed.


Temporary judge

An attorney who volunteers his or her time to hear and decide small claims court cases. Also called a pro tem judge.


In small claims court, you may bring in a witness to vouch for your story to the judge during your hearing. The evidence they present orally is called testimony.


A civil, not criminal, wrong. A negligent or intentional injury against a person or property, with the exception of breach of contract. This is the second most common “theory” parties use to sue in small claims court (the first is breach of contract, which is not a tort).


A written, word-for-word record of what was said, i.e. in a proceeding such as at your small claims trial.


Any mode or means by which a debtor disposes of or parts with his/her property. Sometimes in small claims this term gets used by a plaintiff when explaining to the judge that the defendant failed to send them the money or that the defendant moved the money to someone else so that they wouldn’t have to pay.


Unlawful detainer action

A lawsuit brought by a landlord against a tenant to evict the tenant from rental property – usually for nonpayment of rent. These cases are not heard in small claims court and involve a separate proceeding relating to whether or not a tenant can stay in the leased premises.


Vacate the Default Judgment

Getting a default judgment removed or erased. A large percentage of plaintiffs automatically win a judgment in small claims due to a defendant’s “no-show” This is called a default judgment (see “default judgment”) and entitles the plaintiff to collect what they’re owed. Rarely, a default will attempt to “vacate” this judgment and try to secure a new hearing with the judge. The burden will be on the defendant to convince the judge why the judgment should be removed. If it is, there will be another hearing for the small claims case.


The particular geographic area in which a court has jurisdiction, i.e. where a lawsuit may be properly brought. In small claims court, venue is typically proper where the defendant resides, where a large part of the events happened, and in some instances, where the plaintiff resides.


A legal process where a plaintiff who wins in small claims (judgment creditor) seeks to subject to his or her claim the future wages of a debtor. In other words, you win in small claims, you may require the employer of the losing defendant (judgement debtor) to withhold a portion of the judgment debtor’s wages to satisfy the judgment.

To abandon or give up a claim or a right, or forgive some other requirements.

A person called upon by either side in a lawsuit to give testimony before the court or jury.