Unlike in Pennsylvania, New Jersey’s municipal courts are reserved for motor vehicle, criminal, and local ordinance violations and other non-civil matters. In New Jersey, the court for small civil claims is a division of the New Jersey Superior Court called the “Special Civil Part.” It is broken down into two sections: claims not exceeding $3,000 and claims in between $3,000 and $15,000. The forms for filing a claim can be found at “NJCourts Online.” The web address is www.judiciary.state.nj.us. Go to the “Self-Help Resource Center” for all the forms and information you will need to represent yourself in a small claim in New Jersey.
One important difference in New Jersey for claims between $3,000 and $15,000 is the ability to take limited discovery. Again, “discovery” is simply the opportunity for one party to find out what the other party has in the way of evidence before you get to court. In the Special Civil Part, you may send your opponent a request for any documents he or she may have and the names of witnesses that may be called to testify. You may also serve “interrogatories” which are simply a series of questions to your opponent asking them to tell you what they know about the case. For example, in our ABC Contractors case, the contractor might want to send interrogatories to the plaintiff asking whether the dishwasher overflowed after the floor was installed, when it overflowed, whether they called a plumber, and so on. Drafting effective interrogatories often requires legal training. However, in a small case, asking the obvious questions will at least enable you to reduce the risk of surprise when you get to court.
Of course, with every upside there is always a downside. Your opponent may not answer your questions or send you the documents he has. You may ask the court to compel him to do so. Yet, all of these extra discovery matters will delay your day in court perhaps by several months. Accordingly, you have to give serious consideration to how much you really need to know from your adversary before engaging in even limited discovery.
Did I mention that it is well worthwhile to pay for a consultation with an attorney before setting out to represent yourself on your own? At the consultation, the attorney can offer you guidance on whether to engage in limited discovery and what to ask for.