Considerations before filing
Chance of success
There are several questions to ask yourself before starting a court case:
- Who are you filing a case against? Can they give you what you are asking for if you win the case?
- Why are you filing a case? Do you have enough information to support your side?
- How much time has passed since the issue happened? You may not be able to file a case if it happened a while ago because of statutes of limitation.
Costs of a court case
It costs time and money to file a case in court. Court cases may take several months and even a year or years to finish. Court cases often include:
- Fees to file your case, if you cannot get them waived
- Lawyer fees or your own time spent figuring out the court process and doing the paperwork
- Time spent in court, which may be time you have to take off work
Other options besides going to court
There are other options besides going to court that cost less and are faster:
- Settle: Come to an agreement with the other party on your own. You have more control of the outcome because a judge or jury is not making the final decision.
- Mediation: Reach an agreement with the other party with the help of a neutral third party. The mediator does not decide what happens. The mediator helps you reach an agreement that is documented in a contract that both parties must follow.
1. Prepare your forms
- Cook County: Use the Small claims complaint in Cook County program to create your summons and complaint.
- Lake County: Use the Small claims complaint in Lake County program to create your summons and complaint.
- Other Counties: Check with your local circuit clerk.
The complaint describes your claim against the defendant. If you have any documents to support your claim, attach copies to your complaint. Make sure that you make copies of all documents you attach to your complaint so you have them for your records after filing.
The summons tells the defendant that you filed a lawsuit. It also tells the defendant how and where they need to respond to your lawsuit.
The defendant must receive notice of the claim. You are responsible for making sure the defendant gets a copy of the summons and complaint.
2. File your forms with the court
Now that you have filled out your forms, you need to file them with the clerk. The method you are required to use depends on the county where you are filing.
- E-filing: Some counties require you to file your forms and documents electronically. See E-Filing Basics for more information.
- Paper filing: If you can paper file or have an E-filing Exemption Certificate, take your completed forms to the circuit court clerk's office in the courthouse. See courthouse locations.
There is a fee to file most forms. The cost depends on the type of case you have and the county where you are filing. Contact your local circuit clerk's office for information on the fees.
If you do not have money to pay court fees, use the Application for Waiver of Court Fees program.
When you file your forms with the clerk they become part of the case. The clerk will stamp your forms. This stamp is important because it's proof that you filed the form with the court.
- E-filing: The documents you want to file with the court have to be uploaded into the system. You will need to create an account. See E-filing Basics for details.
- Paper filing: If you are paper filing bring the forms to the clerk at the courthouse in the county where you are filing. Bring all your copies and the originals with you when you file. Ask the clerk to stamp all your forms. They will keep the original. Keep at least one copy for your records. See courthouse locations.
3. Tell the other party about your case
Here are the rules to know about a summons:
- You must send the other party a summons within a certain number of days - ask the clerk's office for the court you're filing in how many days you have;
- You may send the summons only in certain ways. See Serving a summons for step by step instructions and explanations;
- There is a usually a cost to have a summons served. The cost depends on how the summons is served to the other party; and
- If you do not give the other party a summons telling them about your lawsuit within the required time, the lawsuit may be dismissed because there was not proper notice of the lawsuit.
4. Go to court on your return date
If you filed the lawsuit in Cook County, you do not need to go to court on the return date.
You should dress like you are going to an important business meeting. Get to court early, in case you get delayed, and check in with the clerk when you arrive.
Learn more about Going to court.
- If the defendant denies the claims, a trial will be scheduled;
- If the defendant admits the claims, a judgment will be entered in your favor; or
- If the defendant does not show up in court, a default judgment will be entered.
It is important to take proof of proper service with you to court.
5. Prepare for trial
To prepare for trial, do the following things:
- Organize your main points;
- Read the complaint again;
- Know how to explain your side of the story;
- Organize your documents so they can be easily used;
- Locate witnesses who know the facts;
- Bring expert witnesses (a mechanic, for example) who will support your case; and
- Know what their witnesses will say.
If the clerk issues the subpoena, the person you want as a witness is required to come to court. You will have to pay any witness you force to come to court.
All small claims court sessions are open to the public. You may attend any of these courtroom proceedings to observe.
6. Go to the trial
The trial will be in front of the judge only, or in front of a jury and a judge.
When you finish, the defendant and the judge can ask the witness questions. Then, the defendant will have a chance to present evidence and witnesses. You and the judge can question (cross-examine) the defendant's witnesses.
If no jury was requested, the judge will either dismiss the case or give you a judgment for the money.
If it is a jury trial, the jury will talk privately, and then give their decision to the judge. Based on the jury's conclusion, the judge will either dismiss the case or award you a judgment for money.
If you win the case
If you prove that the defendant owes you money, the judge will give you a money judgment. This is a court document that says the defendant owes you money. The judgment may also include court costs.
This does not mean that you will walk away that day with money. Also, the court will not help you collect the money. If the defendant does not pay, you can ask the court to have the money:
- Taken from the defendant's wages
- Taken from the defendant's bank accounts
- Put as a lien on the defendant's property
Learn more about Collecting a judgment.
If the defendant does not pay you right away, interest will start collecting on the day of the judgment. The rate is 9% a year. The longer the defendant waits, the more they will have to pay.
Also, a judgment against a defendant will show up on their credit report.
If you lose the case
Either party can appeal a decision if they lose their case. The court that you would take your case to is called an appellate court.
In most counties, you must file an appeal within 30 days of the day the judge enters a judgment. Appeals are complicated and require additional fees. You should talk to a lawyer before appealing your case.
Learn more about Appealing a case.
Updated: January 2018