The courtroom of District Court Judge Anne Harper was busy at 8:45 a.m. on a recent Thursday in the King County Courthouse. Ten cases were scheduled for trial and parties raised their hands when the clerk called their names. When both parties were present, Judge Harper asked whether they would like to try voluntary mediation with the Dispute Resolution Center (DRC) of King County. If both parties said yes, they left the courtroom to try mediation, led by a DRC volunteer.
In other cases, only one party was present and waited for the opposing party to appear —sometimes up to two hours as the calendar was called. In one case, the court provided an interpreter for a party whose first language was Spanish. In another, both parties were present and did not settle through mediation. Judge Harper presided over their trial that morning and heard testimony from both parties.
This is King County Small Claims Court.
Small Claims Is a
Division of District Court
In 1984, the Washington Legislature created a Small Claims Department in every District Court of the state.1 Small claims courts have jurisdiction, not exclusive, in cases for the recovery of money only, if the amount claimed does not exceed $5,000.2
Small claims cases can be filed at any District Court in King County, but are tried at only five locations: Auburn, Burien, Issaquah, Seattle (at the King County Courthouse) and Shoreline.3 The hearing schedule for each courthouse is posted at the District Court website.
The Legislature “intended small claims courts to be a forum for speedy, cheap, and conclusive justice.”4 The Avery Court pointed out that parties may not be represented by attorneys in Small Claims Court, and that “counsel may not even participate in the defense.”5 In fact, RCW § 12.40.080(1) provides: “No attorney-at-law, legal paraprofessional, nor any person other than the plaintiff and defendant, shall appear or participate with the prosecution or defense of litigation in the small claims department without the consent of the judicial officer hearing the case.”
The District Court website notes that typical small claims cases involve, but are not limited to, auto accidents, property damage, landlord-tenant disputes and collection of personal debts. Help is available for people who want to file a case or are defendants.
For example, the District Court posts a brochure about Small Claims Court on its website. Northwest Justice Project (NJP) published a comprehensive brochure, which can be downloaded from the WashingtonLawHelp.org website.6 NJP provides assistance to low-income persons who want to file a small claims case.
“If a landlord doesn’t return a deposit, I help the tenant to prepare a Small Claims Court petition,” staff attorney Scott Crain said. He advises clients to bring to the hearing the pictures, documents and witnesses that are the most relevant to the case.
“Tenants can win those cases if they’re prepared, because landlords will often charge for normal wear and tear or for excessive claims for reimbursement,” Crain said. “If other problems occurred in the unit, [insect] infestation, lack of heat or water, then I advise them to pursue those claims too, if they’ll still be below the damages threshold.”
Who May Bring a Claim
Any individual, business, partnership or corporation (with a couple of exceptions) may bring a small claims suit.7
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