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Small Claims Information

What is a small claims case?

Small claims court provides citizens with a low-cost, simple process for resolving civil disputes involving small amounts of money. The applicable Iowa laws may be found in Iowa Code chapter 631.

A small claims case is a civil action for a money judgment in which the amount in controversy is $5000 or less. An action for forcible entry and detainer arising out of a landlord tenant dispute can be brought in small claims court. In small claims court, cases are tried before a judge, not a jury, and without strict regard to technicalities of rules of procedure. There are easy-to-complete small claims forms for electronic filing, with links to the forms and instructions at the top of this page. You must use electronic filing for your small claims case unless the court has granted you an exception from electronic registration and filing requirements.

Start a Small Claims Case

To begin a small claims case, review the “Instructions for Pro Se Users” in the menu to the left. You will then be able to choose and download the appropriate small claims Original Notice form available on this website for electronic filing. There may be an additional cost for having the petition served on the other party. Complete the appropriate Original Notice and Petition form and go to the eFiling (EDMS) Login page on this website to register for electronic filing and to file your document electronically with the court. The filing fee for small claims cases is $85 and may be paid online.

Defending a Small Claims Case

If you have received an Original Notice naming you as a defendant, review the Instructions for a Defendant Responding to a Small Claims Action in the left-hand menu on this page. Download a small claims Appearance and Answer form from this website.Complete the appropriate forms and go to the eFiling Login page on this website to register for electronic filing and to file your document electronically with the court. There is no fee for filing an answer. If you do not file an answer, you risk the chance of having the court enter a default judgment against you awarding plaintiff what he or she asked for in the Original Notice and Petition.

If you believe you also have a claim against the person suing you, you may file a small claims Counterclaim .

Court Hearing

If the other party has entered a timely answer or defaulted (not answered), the clerk will assign a case to the court calendar for hearing. A magistrate, district associate judge, or district court judge may hear the case.

Judicial magistrates hear most small claims cases. Small claims hearings are simple and informal. Follow the Tips for Representing Yourself on this website.

Hearings are not recorded by a certified court reporter unless the party provides the reporter at the party's own expense. At the magistrate's discretion the hearing may be electronically recorded by other means.

Failure to Appear at Hearing

Unless good cause to the contrary is shown, if parties fail to appear at the time of the hearing the claim will be dismissed without prejudice, meaning the plaintiff may be able to refile the claim upon paying another $85 filing fee. If the plaintiff fails to appear, but the defendant appears, the claim shall be dismissed with prejudice, meaning the plaintiff may not refile the same claim. If the plaintiff appears, but the defendant does not, the court will enter judgment against the defendant.

Using an Attorney for Small Claims

Some litigants in small claims court choose to have an attorney, though it is not required. If you do not want to have an attorney represent you in court, but want some assistance preparing your case you might consider retaining an attorney for an hour or so to look over your case, and point out strong and weak points.

Default Judgment

If a defendant fails to appear and the clerk of court determines proper notice was given, the clerk of court will enter judgment against the defendant if plaintiff’s damages are clearly identified. If plaintiff’s damages are not clearly identified, a judge must enter a judgment on plaintiff’s claim.

Setting Aside a Default Judgment

A defendant may ask the court to set aside a default judgment for good cause, including mistake, inadvertence, surprise, excusable neglect, or unavoidable casualty. A motion to set aside a default judgment must be filed promptly after the discovery of the grounds, but not more than sixty days after entry of the judgment.


A party who is unhappy with a small claims judgment may appeal the case. To appeal you must:

  • Either tell the judge at the conclusion of the hearing that you want to appeal, or file a written notice of appeal with the clerk within twenty days after the decision is rendered.
  • Pay the docket fee to the clerk of court within twenty days after the decision is rendered.

If a magistrate decided the original action, a district associate or district court judge will hear the appeal. If a district associate judge heard the original action, a district court judge will decide the appeal. And if a district court judge heard the original action, another district court judge will decide the appeal.

The appeal will be heard upon the record without taking additional evidence. If the original action was recorded electronically, the tape recording or other medium will be the record on appeal.

If you are not pleased with the outcome of the appeal, you may ask the Iowa Supreme Court to review the case. In small claims cases, however, the supreme court has discretion to decide if it will review the case—review is not a matter of right.

Prohibited Practices

The court, after notice and hearing, may bar you from appearing on your own behalf in a small claims action if you do any of the following:

· Falsely hold yourself out as an attorney.

· Repeatedly file claims for costs that the court has found to be exaggerated or without merit.

· Repeatedly violate debt-collection practices prohibited by the consumer credit code.

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