Basics

Civil Court Cases

Civil court cases are divided into types depending on how much money they are worth.

  • Limited civil case — A general civil case that involves an amount of money of $25,000 or less.
  • Unlimited civil case — A general civil case that involves an amount of money over $25,000. Unlimited civil cases also include other types of disputes that do not involve money, like cases to resolve (or “quiet”) title to real property, cases asking for civil restraining orders, and requests to change your name or your child’s name. Basically, an unlimited civil case is any case that is not a limited civil case under the definition of Code of Civil Procedure sections 85 – 86.1.
  • Small claims case — A civil case filed in small claims court for $10,000 or less. If you are a business (except for a sole proprietor), you can only sue for $5,000 in small claims court. If you are a "natural person" (not a business or public entity), the limit is $7,500 if you are filing a claim for bodily injuries from a car accident against a person who is covered by car insurance that includes a "duty to defend." 

Representing Yourself in a Civil Case

If you are filing a limited civil case or an unlimited civil case, it is a very good idea to have a lawyer. But you are not legally required to have a lawyer (unless you are incorporated and your corporation is the one that is suing or being sued).

If you do not have a lawyer, you will have to act as your lawyer. And, to do so, you will have to know the laws and court procedures. The court cannot help you or give you a break just because you are not a lawyer and do not know the law. If you do not follow the many court rules and laws governing litigation, you could get fined by the court and you could even lose important rights or your entire case.

There are a lot of good reasons to have a lawyer, but not all lawyers are equally competent or qualified to help with your case:

  • Lawyers experienced with the type of case you have can better assess whether court or some other way of resolving disputes is best for dealing with your particular issue. For example, many people who file a lawsuit because they were wronged or hurt in some way (like in medical malpractice, for example) think that a lawsuit will bring them the justice they seek. But for many reasons completely unrelated to the skill of their lawyer, court may not be a good option because juries are reluctant to find doctors responsible even when there was negligent treatment.
  • Lawyers know the law and court procedures and how to research the law. They know how to manage the case and follow all the rules, which can be very confusing if you are not used to them.
  • Experienced lawyers know about the judges and how they like to run their courtrooms. They know court staff and local procedures in your court.
  • Lawyers can help you make important strategic decisions to help your case. For example, they can help you figure out if you should ask for a jury trial or a court trial (where there is no jury and the judge decides your case).
  • Experienced lawyers know juries — how to choose a jury that can be more favorable to your case, what juries are like, and how to present a case to a jury.
  • Lawyers are not personally involved in the case so they can see it more objectively than you can. This can be a great help, especially in cases that are very emotional or have a lot at stake.

Read the section on Representing Yourself for more information you should know if you are going to represent yourself.

Law and Procedures for Civil Cases

You can find the court’s rules, laws, and procedures that apply to civil cases in:

Other Types of Money Disputes

Money Disputes in a Family Law Case

This section does NOT deal with family law cases, even if there is money involved. So if you want to get child support or spousal/partner support from your former spouse or domestic partner, you need to go to the sections that deal with those topics, Child Support or Spousal/Partner Support. The same applies when you and your spouse/partner or former spouse/partner have a dispute about your bank accounts or a house or something else that involves money. In general, those issues need to be dealt with in a divorce or legal separation.

Money Disputes in a Housing or Eviction Case

This section also does NOT deal with disputes between landlords and tenants. If you are a landlord trying to evict your tenant or you are a tenant and your landlord is trying to evict you, you probably have a civil case involving money (back rent). But eviction cases are different from other types of civil cases. This Online Self-Help Center has information and guides to help you specifically with your eviction. Go to the Eviction and Housing section to learn more about evictions. In that section, you can also get information about foreclosures or security deposits.

If you have a dispute over money that involves housing, but it really has to do with someone breaking a contract (like if you want to sue a contractor who worked on your house), or with property damage (like if a city truck ran into and damaged your house), then the Problems With Money section is where you will find the information you need.

Money Disputes in Small Claims Court

This section does not provide information about small claims cases. Small claims cases are civil cases where the amount in dispute is $10,000 or less (with a few exceptions) and where the parties (the people or businesses in the case) choose to handle their case in small claims court. Lawyers are not allowed in small claims court, and the rules are more informal and the process is a lot simpler. Read the Small Claims section for more information on small claims court.

Keep in mind that you can have a civil case for $10,000 or less that is NOT in small claims court. There are many reasons why this may happen.

  • Sometimes, people choose not to file their case in small claims court because they want to have a lawyer represent them, even if the amount in dispute is less than $10,000.
  • Other times, you cannot sue in small claims court because of a technical issue (like you need the court to make some other orders that the small claims judge is not allowed to make, or you are suing someone who is not in California and you would not be able to serve that person within California as required for small claims).
  • You may be responding to a lawsuit for $10,000 or less, and the person or company that sued you chose NOT to file in small claims court. This is common in credit card debt or other collection lawsuits where you may owe less than $10,000, but the credit card company prefers to take you to court in a limited civil case, and not small claims. There are many reasons companies may prefer to sue you in a general civil court, and if that happens, you have to defend yourself in civil court and cannot ask to have the case transferred to small claims court.

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