Everyone knows hiring an attorney can be expensive, not to mention all the associated fees and costs to take a legal matter all the way to court. But, not everyone knows that people may have the option of filing their lawsuit in court on their own, without an attorney. In Minnesota, this special court is called Conciliation Court, but is also known as “small claims” court, in part because the amount of money in dispute cannot be too large.
First, the Conciliation Court only has authority (“jurisdiction”) over certain kinds of civil (versus criminal) legal matters, such as regular contracts, debts, and personal property damage. Second, the total amount of money, damages, or property being claimed or in dispute must be $15,000 or less. Assuming a legal matter meets both criteria, the cost to start (“file”) a case in Conciliation Court is only $75, which is a great savings compared to the $322 or $402 fee required in District Court. There may be additional fees associated with “electronic filing,” which is required in Lake County and others in Northeastern Minnesota, but it is not yet required in St. Louis County.
A case can also be heard more quickly in Conciliation Court, as early as 10 days from the date the court sends out notices via first class mail. However, the court will not mail a notice to a defendant (the person responding to the suit) and instead requires the plaintiff (the person starting the suit) to more formally notify the defendant through “service” if the defendant resides outside the county in which the case was filed or if the claim is for more than $2,500.
The court procedures are also more informal in Conciliation Court, although all people present are expected to speak and behave with respect for the Court, whether the decision-maker is a judge or a referee. Rather than numerous hearings before the Court issues a decision on a legal matter, people attending Conciliation Court should be prepared to “make their case” all in one day. Attendees are expected to have all necessary information, documents, and witnesses ready to go and may be called upon to testify on their own behalf.
Clearly there are pros and cons to filing your case in either court. Another thing to keep in mind before filing is that if either person involved in a small claims case wishes to have a “do over” (an appeal), it is held locally in District Court, which is still at the county level. On the other hand, District Court cases must usually be appealed directly to the Minnesota Court of Appeals in St. Paul, which takes a long time and can be very expensive, because the appellate court has its own rules and costs.
Please consult the attorney of your choice to learn more about resolving legal matters through conciliation (“small claims”) versus district court.