What Happens in Small Claims Court


Every justice court in Arizona has a small claims division, which allows for the inexpensive, speedy, and informal resolution of small claims. A small claims lawsuit is a voluntary and simplified procedure.

Below is information that may be helpful to persons wishing to pursue a small claim but is not a substitute for legal advice. There are other rules and laws that may apply to your situation, but these are common rules and laws that apply in small claims cases. 

A.R.S. means Arizona Revised Statutes, and ARSCP means Arizona Rules of Small Claims Procedure
  1  JURISDICTION
  • Small claims court may only decide lawsuits in which the plaintiff's claims are not more than $3,500 and the defendant's counterclaims are not more than $3,500, not counting interest and costs. ARS § 22-503 and ARSCP 1(a)
  • If a party wants to hire an attorney or file a counterclaim for more than $3,500, they must transfer the case out of small claims court and turn it into a civil lawsuit, which has different rules. 
  • The small claim cannot be for defamation (e.g., libel or slander), specific performance, injunction, eviction, or a claim against the State.
  2  VENUE
  • Venue is the proper place for a lawsuit to proceed. With few exceptions, the small claim must be filed in the justice court where the defendant lives.
  • If the defendant thinks the lawsuit is in the wrong justice court, the defendant can file a motion to change venue. The plaintiff must respond within 10 calendar days. 
  • Most of the deadlines are calculated using calendar days, which includes weekends and holidays. 
  3  NO JURIES, NO APPEALS, NO ATTORNEYS
  • There is no right to a jury. ARS § 22-518
  • There are no appeals. The decision of the hearing officer or justice of the peace is final and binding on both parties. ARS § 22-519
  • An attorney cannot appear and represent you unless both parties agree in writing. ARS § 22-512(B)(7), (D) & (F) & ARSCP 1
  4  MOTIONS
  5  PARTIES TO THE LAWSUIT
  • The parties to the lawsuit are the plaintiff and the defendant. 
  • A party can be an individual, a marital community, or a company. ARSCP 2(a)
  • Each party must use their correct legal name when filing a small claims lawsuit and must use the correct legal name of each defendant (i.e., not "John Doe"). ARSCP 2(b)
  6  COMPLAINT
  • A small claims lawsuit starts when the plaintiff files a complaint. ARSCP 4(a)
  • The plaintiff must make sure everything is included in the complaint because amended complaints are not allowed. If the plaintiff needs to amend the complaint, they must dismiss the case and file a new lawsuit. ARSCP 4(c)
  • The plaintiff will be required to pay a filing fee when filing a complaint. If the plaintiff cannot afford the filing fee, the plaintiff can ask the clerk for a fee waiver/deferral application. ARSCP 4(b)(3) http://www.azcourts.gov/courtfilingfees.
  7  SERVICE
  • The court will issue a summons when the complaint is filed. The summons, complaint, and Notice to Plaintiff and Defendant must be served on all defendants within 45 days of the complaint filing date or the lawsuit will be dismissed. ARSCP 5(a)
  • The plaintiff must provide copies of all documents filed with the court to the other party.
  8  ANSWER
  • The defendant must file a written answer with the court within 20 calendar days of service and mail it to the plaintiff. ARS § 22-514 and ARSCP 7
  • The defendant will be required to pay a filing fee when filing an answer. If the defendant cannot afford the filing fee, the defendant can ask the clerk for a fee waiver/deferral application.
    ARSCP 7  http://www.azcourts.gov/courtfilingfees
  • If the defendant fails to file an answer or otherwise respond within 20 days of service, the plaintiff must initiate default proceedings as described in Rule 140 of the Justice Court Rules of Civil Procedure. ARSCP 7
  9  COUNTERCLAIM
  • A counterclaim states that the plaintiff owes something to the defendant. The defendant must file a counterclaim against the plaintiff within 20 calendar days of service and mail it to the plaintiff. 
  • If the counterclaim is for more than $3,500, the court must transfer the case to the civil division of the justice court. ARSCP 9(b)
  • A counterclaim that is more than $10,000 will result in a transfer of the case to the superior court. ARSCP 9(b)
  10  BEFORE THE HEARING
  • Either party can transfer the case to the civil division of the justice court if either party wants an attorney, a jury, or right to appeal. This request must be made at least 10 business days before the hearing. ARS § 22-504(A) and ARSCP 11(a)
  • If a party wants to reschedule the hearing, the party may file a request at least 15 calendar days before the hearing. The request must include a good reason for rescheduling and, if possible, provide supporting documentation.
  • If a party objects to having a hearing officer conduct the hearing, the matter will be referred to the justice of the peace. This objection must be made at least 15 days before the hearing date. ARS § 22-506(G) and ARSCP 12(a)
  • A party can request to appear by phone at least 15 calendar days before the hearing and should include any exhibits with the request. 
  • If a party requests an interpreter or special accommodations, they must notify the court at least 15 calendar days before the court date.
  • The court can refer the case to a mediator or an arbitrator before the hearing. 
  11  THE HEARING
  • When the defendant files an answer, the clerk will set the case for a hearing within 60 days. All parties will receive notice from the court and must appear at the scheduled hearing. ARS § 22-515(A)-(B) and ARSCP 8
  • Any party who does not appear at the hearing risks having an appropriate judgment entered against them. ARS § 22-515(B)
  • If the plaintiff appears but the defendant does not, the court will consider plaintiff's evidence and, if supported by the evidence, the court may award judgment for the plaintiff. ARSCP 12(c)(2)
  • If the plaintiff fails to appear, but the defendant appears, the court may dismiss the lawsuit with or without prejudice, or it may award judgment for the defendant. ARSCP 12(c)(3)
  • If both parties fail to appear at the hearing, the court will dismiss the complaint and any counterclaims without prejudice, meaning the claims may be refiled. ARSCP 12(c)(1)
  12  EVIDENCE AND TESTIMONY
  • Formal rules of evidence do not apply. ARS § 22-516(A) and ARSCP 12(e)
  • At the hearing, the justice of the peace or hearing officer will ask questions and permit the parties to ask questions of each other and witnesses. ARSCP 12(e)
  13  JUDGMENT
  • A judgment may be entered at the end of the hearing or in writing within 10 calendar days.
  • Small claims judgments cannot be appealed. But there are a number of reasons a party can file a motion to vacate a judgment. A party can be represented by an attorney for a motion to vacate a judgment.
  • A judgment can be collected by garnishment or writ of execution. A party can be represented by an attorney in collection proceedings.
  14  SETTLEMENT
  • A plaintiff can dismiss their lawsuit in writing prior to the hearing if the defendant has not filed an answer or counterclaim.
  • The parties can also agree to dismiss a case. 
  • If the lawsuit settles before the hearing date, the plaintiff must notify the court by filing a notice of settlementARSCP 4(d)