YOUR FINANCES »
Small claims court: Know your
stuff before you enter
Broadcast: October 5, 1999
This story, "Small Claims
won a gold medal in the category educational / instructional
television at the New York Festivals, January 19, 2001.
Most of us know small claims court through the television
personas of Judges Wapner and Judy.
But in real life it's
the arena of last resort for the average consumer, the
place where you can still recover some money from a shady
retailer or a shoddy service company.
But small claims
court can bewilder and frustrate you if you don't know
what you're doing.
Vartanian has been to small claims court more times than almost anyone
-- except maybe a small claims court judge. And the four times she's
been to court have convinced her that it's "a perfect place for consumers
to seek justice."
She's done battle in court over a landlord-tenant dispute.
She's fought twice before a judge over
tropical vacation rip-offs. She won. Both times.
This is a story about another case Vartanian went to court
to fight. And won again.
few years ago I bought a used car," she says. "I was thrilled
with the car but the radio was a pain. There was static.
There (were) whistling noises … it was really irritating."
So she took the radio to the shop where she bought the car,
and staff there told her they'd fix it.
But time passed and no radio. Vartanian made repeated calls
to the shop, but nobody called her back. Finally when she
did connect with them, they told her the radio couldn't be
fixed, but they could replace it with a better unit. That
was fine with her.
The new radio also had problems, prompting the woman to
write a letter to the shop:
"I am a busy person, sir. I do not
have time to return repeatedly to your store until you
get it right. But believe me I will be a thorn in your
side until you do."
But still no word from the store, which left Vartanian feeling
when she took the radio to a different shop, where technicians
told her the new radio had been improperly wired. They re-installed
it for $71.30 - a bill Vartanian sent to the original shop.
But still no response, which prompted
another letter, this time saying that if she didn't hear
from the shop by the end of the month, "I'll see you in
"My favourite words," she says.
did everything any consumer should do," says Judge Marvin
Zuker, who presided over small claims court cases for more
than 10 years. "She appreciated that the court system was
to be the last resort. And I think she did absolutely the
Just don't expect instant results, he cautions.
"…It could take several months depending on the jurisdiction
you're in," Zuker says, "but eventually people will have
their day in court."
day got closer for Vartanian when, after hearing nothing
from the shop owner, she paid $35 and filed in small claims
court. "For access to the judicial system, I consider that
a bargain," she says.
It's a bargain as long as you know what you're doing.
to Zuker, "When you decide you are going to sue, make sure
as much as possible that you are suing the right person. Don't
get hung up on the name of the company. Go to the Ministry
of Consumer and Commercial Relations - they will help you."
That's important because such mistakes will delay the process.
But Vartanian knew exactly who and what she was after.
"You know, that man could have kissed
me off for $71.30 and it would have been all over. But
no, because he didn't do that I decided to sue for a lot
In addition to the $71.30 for the radio repair, Vartanian
calculated - among other things - out-of-pocket court expenses
and $375 for the value of her own time. And something else:
damages," she says. "Meaning I wanted to send a message to
this guy that this is not a way to deal with people. And
punishment for that, I figured, should be $250. And that
came to a grand total of $723.10. And that's what I filed
Awards for going to court vary from province to province.
In B.C. the maximum is $10,000. In Ontario it's only $6,000.
Like most people who sue in small claims court, Vartanian
did so without legal representation. If that's the case,
the judge can help guide you along the way.
"The judge is a consumer himself or herself," Zuker says. "You
shouldn't feel intimidated by the process."
Vartanian says representing yourself
is also cheap: "…you
don't have to pay big bucks for a fancy-schmancy lawyer."
Maybe the most crucial piece of advice
she offers is this: "Remember
to bring all your documents."
a mantra Zuker favours too. "Documentation, documentation,
documentation … Bring your materials with you. Bring
contracts with you. Don't forget witnesses. There is a misconception
that if they are a family member they can't give evidence
on your behalf."
In Vartanian's case, not only was she
prepared, the defendant never showed up for the trial. "That was a big mistake on
his part," she says.
was a mistake that contributed to her victory. Vartanian was awarded $323.10
- she lost out on her claim for lost time, for instance, but
she did win on her claim for punitive damages, despite the
fact they're rarely awarded in such a court.
"When the judge put me on the stand, I was very deferential," she
says. "Always a good idea," Zuker notes. "Certainly in my
experience when a litigant refers to myself as "your Majesty," I
think that goes a long way to supporting that person's claim.
I'm only joking, of course."
But the victory didn't translate into money for Vartanian
"Perhaps the greatest misconception in small claims court
is,when you get a judgment, that you actually see the money
that split second. And of course that's not the case," Zuker
says. "You'll find that, to collect on the judgment, will
require enforcement proceedings."
And that means you may arrange to have wages garnisheed
or have land or personal property seized to pay the judgment.
Now, in the end, you might think, gee, wasn't that a lot
of work for her to win just $323.10?
"For a lot of people, small claims court is not about collecting
money. It's not about a judgment. It's not about interest.
It's about principle," Zuker says.
agrees. "In the end the great thing about small claims court
is, it's a great way to seek justice when you've been wronged
in the market place. And to do it at a bargain-basement price … hey,
they don't call it 'the People's Court' for nothing."
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