There are two basic types of civil courts in Vermont: Courts of Law and Courts of Equity.
Courts of Law, in simplest terms, apply the facts of a case to the applicable law and determine the outcome by analyzing the facts under the law. Courts of Equity, on the other hand, endeavor to apply reason and balance to the facts, attempting to arrive at a decision based on fundamental fairness. Vermont’s small claims court is a combination of the two.
Vermont’s small claims court provides a low-cost forum for pro se litigants to bring suit in civil matters by following statute and common law (Law) and applying basic tests of fairness to the given set of facts (Equity) without the formality of a standard civil trial. (Pro se litigants are not represented by a lawyer.) Plaintiffs who claim harm can bring an action in small claims court to seek damages in an amount not to exceed Five Thousand ($5,000.00) Dollars.
Small claims court is available to anyone at least 18 years old with a claim for money damages.
However, a Plaintiff’s cause must be his or her own – a person cannot sue on behalf of a friend or relative. Although, a Plaintiff under 18 years old or under a guardianship, may have a parent or guardian sue on the Plaintiff’s behalf. Small claims court is also available to corporations and partnerships.
A benefit of small claims court is a Plaintiff can argue his or her side of a case in his or her own words, and offer written (according to the Rule) and testimonial evidence for proof without the need for a lot of research or technical legal jargon. Also, because the Court realizes pro se litigants are not lawyers, some of the formal rules of court procedure are simplified. For instance, though the Rules of Evidence are recognized, they are not strictly applied as in other courts.
It is important to note, however, that while the procedure is less formal than a standard civil suit, a Court’s decision is just as real and binding. To be clear: a small claims court proceeding is an official judicial hearing in every sense – just without some of the usual formality. Indeed, a Plaintiff waives his or her right to a jury trial by filing a small claims action.
While the small claims court was established to resolve minor legal disputes without the need for lawyers, parties are, of course, entitled to be represented by counsel.
Bergeron Paradis & Fitzpatrick, LLP holds a seminar on the first Tuesday of every month at 2pm in the Costello Courthouse located on Cherry Street in Burlington to help pro se litigants prepare for their small claims case.