Suing without a lawyer

This post answers:

  1. what does it mean to sue someone?
  2. do you need a lawyer to sue someone? (answer: no)
  3. how do you sue someone?

What does it mean to sue someone

The purpose of suing someone (whether an individual or a company) is to get compensation for a loss or harm that the other person caused you and has refused to rectify.A loss or harm can be towards you personally,  your property, or an economic loss (such as for failing to abide by a contract or agreement).  Someone can cause a loss or harm by their action or inaction. Suing someone refers to the formal legal process needed to ask a court to order this compensation; this process is also sometimes called “filing a lawsuit”, “bringing a claim”, “commencing legal proceedings”, or “taking legal action”. Examples of situations that might lead to you suing someone include:

  • you lent someone money and they are not paying you back;
  • you purchased something on the internet, but what you received was not what you were told you were buying; or
  • someone damaged your property and refuses to pay for repairs.

Do you need a lawyer to sue someone

There are actually two “levels” of Alberta courts in which you can sue: Provincial Court (also known as small claims court) and the Court of Queen’s Bench (also known as the superior court). Small claims court is generally recommended if the financial loss that you are suing for is under $50,000, which is the maximum you can sue for in small claims court. Small claims court is good because it has relatively simple procedures compared to the superior court that ultimately reduces your costs, whether or not you hire a lawyer to represent you. It is these less complex procedures that make small claims court much easier for you to navigate without representation from a lawyer.

Many people sue in small claims court without representation from a lawyer. Some questions you might ask when deciding on whether to proceed on your own include:

  1. how complex are the legal issues that you are suing about?
  2. how much is your case worth compared to your time?
  3. will the defendant hire a lawyer?
  4. are you organized and pay attention to detail?
  5. are you intimidated by authority?
  6. are you intimidated by the defendant?

If any of the above may pose a problem for you, you should consider hiring a lawyer to help you through all or some of your lawsuit.

How do you sue someone

Before starting a lawsuit you should prepare. You should identify and quantify what you have lost. This is sometimes difficult to do but important because you must be clear about what you are asking the court to do. You should also collect and preserve as much evidence as you can to prove your loss. Only relevant and material evidence will be considered by a judge. If you do not have evidence to back up your claim (eg receipts, photos, reports, agreements, emails, etc), a judge cannot give you what you ask for.

The following are the main required steps for suing in small claims court:

  1. Download a Civil Claim form from the Alberta Courts website. Read the instructions carefully and fill it out.
  2. File four copies of the completed Civil Claim form at the courthouse (usually the courthouse closest to where you suffered your loss).
  3. Serve a copy of the filed Civil Claim on the other party (now called the “Defendant”) by personally delivering it them (or by hiring someone to serve it on them) or mailing it to them by registered mail (note there are also other ways of serving a Defendant).
  4. Download and an Affidavit of Service form, which can be downloaded from the Alberta Courts website. Read the instructions carefully and fill it out. You must swear this Affidavit of Service before a lawyer or a commissioner for Oaths.
  5. File two copies of the completed Affidavit of Service form at the courthouse.
  6. Wait for the Defendant to file and serve you with a Dispute Note / Counterclaim. The Defendant has 20 days to file from the time that they were served with your Civil Claim. Check with the court after 20 days if a Dispute Note was filed.
  7. If no Dispute Note is filed, you may request a Default Judgment (if you are claiming on a simple debt) or a Noting in Default (for more complicated claims). This means, in short, a judge will decide the case and a Judgment will be issued, (usually) in your favour. This ends the lawsuit.
  8. If the Defendant files a Dispute Note the court will schedule a pre-trial conference where you and the Defendant must meet together with a Judge to discuss how the matter might be resolved, whether the matter should proceed to trial, and what evidence must be exchanged. Pre-trial conferences must be set many months in advance.
  9. Each party should exchange the document evidence that each will be relying on if the matter proceeds to trial.
  10. The pre-trial conference takes place. A trial date is scheduled. Trials are being set several months in advance.
  11. Further exchanges of documents between parties are made, often in accordance with direction from the pre-trial conference.
  12. The final step is to attend a trial of your civil claim. How to run a trial is a subject that needs its own post. It is recommended that you consult the resources below (or a lawyer) for guidance on what to expect at trial. At the end of the trial, judgment is granted and your lawsuit ends.
  13. If you are successful at trial, the defendant may have been ordered to pay you. If the defendant pays, great. If not, you must now take steps to collect from the defendant (see this helpful guide).

Note that parties may settle the matter at any point in this process, which also ends the lawsuit.



Luke Ratzlaff

Luke Ratzlaff, MA, JD is a lawyer at Ratzlaff Law. His background is in debt collections, business law, estate planning, and technology.