The do-it-yourself way to sue deadbeat customers and other company leeches.

Judge Wapner must feel proud. As a result of his original TV show, "The People's Court," more people are going to small claims court to resolve their disputes. In some cities, small claims cases have increased 30 percent to 50 percent since the popular program began.

Small claims court is a valuable and often overlooked resource for small and midsize businesses. It gives you an opportunity to get justice quickly and inexpensively. And, while going to court may not replace golfing or gardening as your favorite recreational activity, you may enjoy the chance to be your own lawyer occasionally.

You're most likely to go to small claims court to compel payment from a customer who refuses to pay a bill. But many other legal situations are also suitable candidates for small claims court. For example, you might sue a supplier who won't refund a deposit that you're entitled. Or, you might sue a subtenant who moved out of your place and failed to pay last month's rent, or a company that damaged your back door while making a delivery.

Nearly every state has a small claims court. Sometimes it's a separate court. Other times it's a division or department of another court, such as municipal, district or county court. Whatever it's called, small claims court is designed to provide speedy and inexpensive hearings in cases involving relatively small amounts of money.

Generally, in a small claims case, you have no right to a trial by jury. In some states, the right to appeal also is lost. If you go to small claims court, you can handle your own case and avoid legal fees. In some states, lawyers aren't even allowed in small claims cases.

If you're doing business as a corporation, check with the court clerk to make sure that you, as a nonlawyer, can represent the company in court. Remember that a corporation is a separate legal entity from its owners. Some states take the position that appearing in court for a corporation amounts to practicing law without a license. Other states allow corporations to designate an employee to appear on their behalf in small claims court.

If you proceed on your own, you still may want to consult with your lawyer for 15-20 minutes on strategy and the best way to fill out the court papers.

Getting Started

Small claims court is designed for people with no legal education. The court clerk probably will have a booklet or information sheet that explains procedures in plain English. The clerk may even help you fill out the necessary forms, which usually are quite simple.

There are limits on how much you can sue for in small claims court. In most states, the upper limit is in the range of $1,000-$2,000. However, the upper limit can be as low as $500 or as high as $5,000. Ask the clerk for guidance.

If a customer owes you $1,650 and the jurisdictional limit in your small claims court is $1,500, you may decide to sue for $1,500 and forget about the excess. In the long run, this may be less expensive than suing in regular court.

When representing plaintiffs, lawyers typically name as many defendants as possible in a lawsuit. This increases the chance of getting a collectible judgment from at least one person. Such a strategy can be effective in small claims cases, too. If a husband and wife have purchased merchandise for their house and owe you money, sue each of them. Similarly, if an employee of a computer repair company has damaged your equipment in the process of repairing it, sue the employee and the company.

You start your small claims case by filling out a complaint or statement of claim. Briefly describe why the defendant is liable to you, and tell how much money you're asking for. If you're suing on a contract, attach a photocopy. After you pay a $5 or $10 filing fee, the clerk will issue a summons informing the defendant about the suit and when the hearing will meet. Usually the summons and complaint can be served by registered or certified mail. In some places, the clerk's office will take care of sending out the papers to the defendant.

The Hearing

At the hearing, you'll probably find that the rules of evidence are relaxed and procedures are informal. Without a lawyer present, the usual question-and-answer format isn't used. You simply tell what happened and present your witnesses.

Speaking of witnesses, spend a few minutes with them in advance reviewing their testimony.

You can subpoena witnesses, but usually you won't want to compel someone to appear unwillingly. Such a witness can do more harm than good. However, a subpoena can be helpful for a friendly witness; the witness can show the subpoena to his or her employer to prove there's a legitimate need to leave work.

In formal legal proceedings, expert opinions, such as an appraisal of damaged property, must be presented personally in court by the expert. But many small claims courts will accept written opinion evidence, even though technically it's hearsay. Consider getting a written report and telling the expert to be on standby in case the court wants testimony in person. If that occurs, request a brief adjournment while you call the witness to court.

Bring to court all records and papers that relate to the transaction. It's better to have too many papers than too few. Also, visual evidence can help establish facts. Truly, a picture is worth a thousand words. Use photographs where appropriate. Consider using drawings to show how a room is laid out or how a complicated piece of machinery works. Chalkboards or large drawing pads usually are available in the courtroom for this purpose.

Tell the judge what happened. Don't address your remarks to the other side. At the end of the case, it's appropriate to point out inconsistencies or fallacies in your opponent's testimony. But stick to the facts. Don't put your argument on a personal basis.

Judges allow limited time for small claims cases - typically no more than 30 minutes per case. This means you need to organize your presentation, focusing on the key facts only.

Remember to ask for costs. If you win, you're entitled to have the other side pay your filing fees and other costs for subpoenaing witnesses and serving papers.

If the defendant doesn't show up for trial, ask for a default judgment, which automatically grants you the relief you want.

Suppose the shoe is on the other foot. Suppose you receive small claims papers naming you as the defendant. Check to see if you're required to file a written answer. Usually the summons will say whether a written answer is required. If you're in doubt, call the court clerk or check the local rules.

As a defendant, you should consider whether you want to hire a lawyer (if lawyers are allowed in your particular court) or move the case from small claims court to regular court, if that option is available. Also, see if you have a counterclaim against the person who sued you.

Collecting A Judgment

It feels good to win a judgment in small claims court, but it feels even better to get payment. Most people pay voluntarily after a judgment is entered. When the losing parties pay you, they are entitled to a paper, often called a "satisfaction of judgment," acknowledging payment. But don't sign such a document unless you've been paid in cash, a certified or cashier's check, or a money order.

What if judgment debtors don't pay you? If you know where they work or have a bank account, you can start a garnishment proceeding. By filing certain forms with the court, you can require the debtor's employer to pay the judgment out of wages or a bank to pay it out of a bank account.

Here's a practical tip: When you extend credit to customers, find out where they're employed and where they do their banking. This information can be helpful if later on you need to collect a judgment from them.

If you don't know where the debtor works or has assets, there are court procedures for requiring disclosure of these things. Debtors have to state under oath where they work and bank, and they must disclose any other assets.

As a rule of thumb, if you can't learn the defendant's employer or bank, your chances of ever collecting the debt are slim.