What Is a Small Claims Court in Arkansas?
In Arkansas, every district court has a small claims division called the "small claims court." Like the district courts, the small claims courts have limited jurisdiction and can only hear specific cases. The jurisdiction of the small claims court extends to civil cases where the amount in controversy does not exceed $5,000, excluding interests and costs. Any claim over this amount must be filed in the regular district court instead.
Civil matters that the court treats usually involve contract disputes, recovery of personal property, and damage to personal property. However, the following categories of people cannot bring actions to the Arkansas small claims courts:
- Collection agencies and agents
- Businesses (associations, corporations, firms, partnerships, or persons) that lend money with interest
Also, the small claims court cannot hear name change, divorce, bankruptcy, real estate title dispute, or guardianship cases.
How Does the Arkansas Small Claims Court Work?
The Arkansas small claims courts offer a platform to resolve low-dollar disputes in a relaxed atmosphere. Here, civil claims are heard and decided by district court judges or small claims magistrates assigned to the small claims court. Jury trials are not held in this court. Also, lawyers cannot represent defendants (sued parties) or plaintiffs (the suing parties) in a small claims case. No other person than the judge, plaintiff, and defendant can partake in these proceedings.
According to S. Ct. Admin. Order No. 18, any person who opts for legal representation in a small claims suit will have their case transferred to the regular district court for adjudication.
A small claims lawsuit begins when a person 18 years or more, not barred from filing in the court as stated above, files a legal complaint with the court. Once this happens, the filing party and any sued party are subject to the procedures of the court. As such, they must follow these rules, including filing, service, and answer processes, to obtain a binding order from the court.
In the Arkansas small claims court, case parties have the right of appeal to the circuit court in their location if they disagree with a judgment. Appeals must be filed within 30 days from the date the judgment was entered on the docket; otherwise, the party loses the appeal right. For the appeals process of the small claims court, an interested party can read Ark. Dist. Ct. R. 9 to find out the documents to submit, ask the court clerk, or contact an attorney.
How to Take Someone to Small Claims Court in Arkansas
The first step to taking anyone to a small claims court in Arkansas is filing a "claim" or "complaint" with the court. Nevertheless, parties should attempt settling out of court using extrajudicial procedures like mediation. That way, the case is resolved more quickly, and litigants do not have to spend more money than is necessary.
A filing party, referred to as a "plaintiff," can be an individual or corporation. However, Arkansas laws have specific criteria for businesses that can file a small claims action. The corporation must satisfy one of the following requirements:
- The corporation has three or fewer stockholders
- It is a closely held corporation, or
- 85% or more of the voting stock is held by third-degree relatives (persons related within the third degree by blood or marriage), including first cousins, great grandparents/grandchildren, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, etc.
The venue for filing a small claims complaint is the court located in the following places:
- Where the defendant resides
- Where the action was to be performed (in breach of contract claims), or
- Where the damage occurred
Individuals can find small claims courts inside the district courts. Generally, court sessions are held in the same courtroom used for district court cases. The District Court Directory and Map can be used to find the district court in a county.
As mentioned earlier, a plaintiff must file a complaint form to begin a small claims case. This claim will typically contain:
- The plaintiff's and defendant's names and addresses
- The amount in controversy or description of the property to be repossessed
- A brief explanation on why the plaintiff thinks the defendant should be responsible for the incurred damage, loss, or injury
- Notice to the defendant to answer the complaint upon receipt
The party must also file a summons and answer form with the court. The complaint, summons, and answer forms can be obtained from the relevant court clerk's office. The plaintiff must fill these forms, make three copies, and submit two copies, together with the copies of any attachment or exhibit (contract, receipts, warranties, etc.) to the court. The court will keep one copy, the defendant will be served with the other, and the third copy is for the plaintiff's files. At the point of submission, the plaintiff will be required to pay the court filing fee. Per Ark. Code Ann. § 16-17-705 and § 21-6-416, it costs $65 to file a small claims action in Arkansas, excluding fees for service ($50 is the actual filing fee, and the remaining $15 is the technology fee). This fee is uniform across the state, despite the county where the claim originates, and it can be paid in cash, check, or money order to the court clerk.
Next, the plaintiff must serve the defendant within 120 days of filing the claim. Arkansas allows three types of service for small claims actions:
- Service by the county sheriff (usually $50)
- Certified mail delivery (with restricted delivery and return receipt requested), and
- Process server
Unless the last two are requested, the defendant will typically be served by certified mail. Some plaintiffs may skip certified mail altogether and choose the more direct options. Here, the filing party bears the cost of the service. However, if the party wins the claim, they can request reimbursement of fees and costs from the defendant.
After service, the defendant has thirty (30) days to file a written answer with the clerk of the court.
How Much Can You Sue For in Arkansas Small Claims Court?
Any person 18 years or older can file a small claims action in Arkansas, provided their claim is not above the court's jurisdictional limit - $5,000. If the amount in dispute is greater, it must be filed with the district or circuit court.
How to Defend Yourself in Arkansas Small Claims Court
If served with a summons to appear for a small claims hearing, a defendant (individual or business being sued) is required by law to answer the summons or deal with the legal fallout. Usually, the court will enter a default judgment against the defendant, which allows the plaintiff to collect on the damages requested.
When answering a summons, a defendant has the option of denying the claim and sending their answer by first-class mail or filing a counterclaim to nullify or reduce the plaintiff's claim using a service method mentioned above. However, there is a third option: the defendant can accept responsibility and settle with the plaintiff out of court.
If filing an answer, the defendant has 30 days before the court takes action. If filing a counterclaim, the defendant must ensure the plaintiff is served with a copy of the counterclaim within that given period. Here, all service costs will be borne by the defendant. However, the party can request reimbursement from the plaintiff if he or she wins the case. It is only after service that a small claims court hearing can be scheduled.
At the hearing, the defendant can present evidence (contract, receipts, letters, bills, pictures, etc.) and call witnesses to support their counterclaim. As there are no lawyers allowed in court, the entity will have to present the case alone. It is important to gather all evidence beforehand, speak concisely, and present facts clearly to the court. Note that parties cannot address each other, only the judge and witnesses.
Afterward, the court will issue a final order on which side should be awarded damages. Note, however, that the court cannot enforce any judgment. The responsibility of collection lies with the prevailing party. Two collection tools that such a party may use are as follows:
- Writ of garnishment: ordering an employer or bank to deduct the amount from the losing party's paycheck, and
- Writ of execution: ordering the sheriff to seize the losing party's property and auction it to satisfy the judgment
Anyone who loses a small claims case can file for an appeal in the circuit court. Arkansas District Court Rule 9 provides more information on filing appeals.
How Long Do You Have to Take Someone to Small Claims Court in Arkansas?
The length of time that a plaintiff has to take another entity to an Arkansas small claims court varies by case. Arkansas law establishes specific limits for civil case types. Individuals can contact an attorney or read the legislature to determine what limits apply. Generally, the clock begins to tick after the cause of action accrues, i.e., once the injury, loss, or damage is incurred.
For example, Arkansas law sets the limit for oral contracts to three years from the cause of action (Ark. Code Ann. §16-56-105). Meanwhile, the statutory limit for written contracts is five years Ark. Code Ann. §16-56-111). Furthermore, personal injury claims and property damage are three years, respectively (Ark. Code Ann. §16-56-104; Ark. Code Ann. §16-56-105).
What Happens if You Don't Show Up for Small Claims Court in Arkansas?
There are different consequences for plaintiffs and defendants who fail to show up for a small claims hearing. If the defaulting party is the defendant, the court can enter a default judgment against them and in favor of the plaintiff. This means that the defendant will be liable for whatever the plaintiff demands. However, if the defaulter is the plaintiff, the court will dismiss the case. If a counterclaim was filed, then the court may issue a default judgment in the defendant's favor. Ultimately, it is best to attend a court hearing to avoid these complications.
When a party has a good reason for not attending court, the entity can submit a letter to the judge explaining his or her reasons. On the plaintiff's part, the court may allow him or her to file the claim again, whereas a defendant can ask the court to set aside the judgment and schedule a new hearing.
What are Small Claims Court Records in Arkansas?
Arkansas small claims court records refer to all documents, recordings, exhibits, motions, etc., created, filed, or submitted during a small claims proceeding. The district court clerks maintain these records at the courthouses. Under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act, members of the public can access these documents from the courts.
Where Can I Find Arkansas Small Claims Court Records?
Individuals interested in looking up Arkansas court records and small claims court records can contact the court clerk's office or records department of the court where the case began. Usually, the requester will need to provide basic case information (case number, parties' names, etc.) in a formal written request to access these records. The contact information (phone and fax numbers) and addresses of the clerk's office can be obtained from the District Court Directory.
Additionally, individuals can use the AOC Public CourtConnect system to find and view basic case information from Arkansas small claims courts. The platform offers five main search options for interested parties:
- Search by a person's or company's name or case type
- Search for judgments entered against entities
- View case information and activities
- Find filed cases by date
- Find docket filings by date
Information that can be viewed on CourtConnect includes:
- Parties' information (full names and aliases)
- The presiding judge
- Case name and type
- Case filings
- The filing court and date
- Case status and disposition
- Event schedule
However, note that not every district court is subscribed to this platform. In some courts, the requester can only obtain partial case information. Also, the information viewed on the platform is not the official, nor complete, court record. For that, the requester must visit or contact the courthouse. More information on using CourtConnect, as well as the contact information of the district court clerks, can be found on the AOC Internal CourtConnect Help page.
Furthermore, interested parties can use a credible third-party website to retrieve small claims court records.