The purpose of small claims court is to hear disputes involving relatively small amounts of money—for example, if you want to get your landlord to return your security deposit, or an auto repair shop to give you a refund for shoddy work. Illinois also allows landlords to file eviction cases in small claims court.
Court procedures are simple, inexpensive, quick, and informal. Most people who appear in small claims court present their own case and don't have a lawyer.
Small claims court rules, including maximum amounts for which you can sue, vary by state. This article provides an overview of small claims cases in Illinois, from the perspective of the person filing the court case (the plaintiff). An alternative procedure exists for claims of $3,000 or less in Cook County.
Who Can Sue in Small Claims Court in Illinois
If you are at least 18 years old (or an emancipated minor), you can file a claim in small claims court. A business entity, such as a corporation or partnership, is typically allowed to bring actions in small claims court, but check with your small claims court clerk for special rules.
Dollar Limit on Illinois Small Claims Cases
To bring your case in small claims court in Illinois, you must be seeking to recover $10,000 or less. If you want to sue for more than the limit, you have to go to a different court, which may not be worth it given the complicated rules and costs of hiring an attorney.
Suing for Something Other Than Money
With a few exceptions, small claims courts in Illinois can only award money, up to the court limits. If you need an order to make someone do (or stop doing) something, other courts are available. For example, if you want to file for divorce or seek higher child support, you will need to go to a family law court.
Deadline for Filing a Small Claims Case in Illinois
Under Illinois state law (735 Ill. Comp. Stat. 5/13-201 et seq.), there are limits (called statute of limitations) on the amount of time you have to bring a lawsuit. The statute of limitations for most cases in Illinois may range from two to ten years (depending on the case), but you’ll want to contact your small claims court or do some legal research to verify the limit for your specific case.
You can consult an attorney if you’ve missed the deadline and still want to pursue legal action, although there are very limited situations when you might be able to do so.
Filing a Small Claims Suit in Illinois
The first step in filing a small claims case is to obtain and fill out the necessary forms (summons and complaint) and pay the required fees. You’ll need some basic information to complete the paperwork, like the name and address of the person or business you’re suing (the defendant) and some details about your claim including the date the claim arose and the amount you intend to ask for in damages. Check with the small claims court where you are filing your action to make sure you have all the information you need and fees required to start your lawsuit.
Most small claims actions are filed in the small claims court in the county where the person being sued lives, where the transaction or injury occurred, or where the business is located. Rules about where you can bring your lawsuit vary depending on the situation and you may have other choices, such as filing where the incident giving rise to the claim occurred.
Clarify what forms you need to complete and how to serve them on the person or business you are suing (the defendant).
Small Claims Trials
After the proper forms have been filed and the defendant served, both sides need to prepare their cases for court. Careful preparation is key to success. This involves:
writing a compelling statement
gathering documents and evidence, such as contracts, credit card statements, and photographs
selecting reliable witnesses (people who saw what happened or experts on the subject matter of the claim involved), who will come to court to tell what they have seen or heard
deciding on the order in which you will present your evidence, and
preparing what you will say in court.
The Court Judgment
The decision in a small claims court case (the judgment) will usually be mailed to the parties, usually a few days or a few weeks after the case is heard. There are exceptions however, typically if one side doesn’t show up and the other wins by default (default judgments are often announced right in the courtroom).
If you win, and the judgment is in your favor, the judge will order the other party to pay a specified amount of money. If things go smoothly, you’ll get your money and that’s it. But sometimes, the person (or business) that lost the case may not have the money to pay the judgment, or may simply refuse to pay it. In that situation, you may need to take legal action (and spend money) to enforce the judgment. The court won't collect the judgment for you.
Filing an Appeal
Illinois law allows either party to file an appeal within 30 days. Check with the small claims court where you filed your action for details on the appeal process.
Working With a Lawyer in Illinois Small Claims Court
An attorney can represent you in small claims court in Illinois (and attorneys are required for corporations); check court rules for details. Even if you don’t have attorney representation in court, you may want to seek a lawyer’s advice about your case—for example, if you are suing your landlord for the return of your security deposit, you may want to consult an experienced tenants’ attorney to make sure you have a strong case. Or if your dispute involves another business, you may want advice from a business lawyer. Check out Nolo’s Lawyer Directory, to find an Illinois attorney who specializes in your type of legal issue.
More Information on Small Claims Court in Illinois
For information on filing a small claims case in Illinois, see the Small Claims Court section of the Illinois Attorney General website.
For information on the Cook County alternative allowed for claims of $3,000 or less, see the Pro Se Small Claims Court section of the Circuit Court of Cook County website.
For detailed information on every phase of small claims court, from preparing a winning case to collecting money if you win, see Everybody’s Guide to Small Claims Court, by Ralph Warner (Nolo).
Questions for Your Attorney
What’s “service” and how is it done?
Will an attorney assist me with my small claims case if I want to represent myself at the trial?
Do I have to appear in court, and what happens if I can’t make it?