I talk to potential clients all the time who are justly and properly due money but we decide together that it would be a bad idea for me to represent them. I feel genuinely bad for these people when they have totally valid claims and there is no question they really were wronged. But this is always the case when the amount they are due is less than the cost for me to represent them. It takes quite a lot of time and costs quite a lot of money for me, as an attorney, to file and prosecute a case in superior court. There are phases of litigation that would be positively wasteful to go through for a small value case, especially when the case is so clear and the wrong so obvious.
Fortunately, the courts have always known and recognized this. They have a “small claims” court which enables you to pursue your claim without having to hire (and pay!) a lawyer. You should be able to get a fair hearing there on your own since lawyers are not even allowed.
This is the kind of court you see on TV. The process is very straightforward: you bring all your documents and witnesses and show up in front of the judge. The judge decides, then a few weeks later, you get your judgment. It is very straightforward.
Small claims court also gives you a fast resolution. There is no “discovery” phase, where you go through and demand documents from each other. There are no depositions, where everyone gathers in a room and the witness is grilled for hours on end. There is no jury to deliberate on your case. From an attorney’s perspective, the process will just fly by. (Although from a normal person’s perspective, it would still take a long time.) You can get a resolution in typically months rather than years, so you’re really better off if you can go this route.
A basic rundown of the way it works from the California courts administration can be found here: https://www.courts.ca.gov/documents/sc100info.pdf
Small claims is a really advantageous route for settling disputes. The biggest reason it is not used by everyone is that it has strict qualification criteria. You can’t use this court frequently, but who really wants to go to court frequently? If you are a “natural person” (court’s description of an actual human being) you have a maximum of $10,000 for your claims. If you are any other kind of “person” (not human: corporation, government, partnership, etc.) then your maximum is $5,000. If you own your own small business that is not incorporated, you get the higher maximum. There are more rules relating to how many claims and how much those claims can come to so everything remains fair.
Unfortunately, I can’t tell you much more about the way these courts work since attorneys can’t practice there. They do, however always provide help for people who are not lawyers so you can navigate your way through. Most counties have an advocate who can walk you through the process and make sure you have everything lined up for the actual hearing.
For the counties I most frequently see, you’ll find help:
San Francisco: https://sf.courts.ca.gov/self-help/small-claims
Contra Costa: https://www.cc-courts.org/small-claims/small-claims.aspx