Civil Court Self-Help

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Civil Court Overview

Plaintiffs file cases civil court if they believe they should be paid money for financial harm caused by one or more defendants. A civil case is filed if the plaintiff seeks more than $20,000 from the plaintiff. Plaintiffs seeking $20,000 or less file in the special civil part. Plaintiffs seeking $5,000 or less can file a small claims case. Both specialized systems include lower fees and faster resolution.  The civil division of Superior court also resolves cases other than lawsuits for money. Some of the most common disputes include:

  • Lawsuits for non-monetary relief.
  • Breach of contract and contract disputes.
  • Auto negligence. 
  • Products liability.
  • Age, race, or gender discrimination.
  • Medical malpractice.
  • Bankruptcy.
  • Landlord Tenant disputes.

Court staff can help you decide which forms you will need based on the type of case you want to file. 

Do I Need a Lawyer?

The court system can be confusing, and it is a good idea to get a lawyer if you can. If you cannot afford a lawyer, you can contact the legal services program in your county to see if you qualify for free legal services.

Legal Services of New Jersey maintains a directory of regional legal services offices.

The NJ State Bar Association also maintains a list of county referral services that might be helpful.

Things to Think About Before Representing Yourself in Court

While you have the right to represent yourself in court, you should not expect any special treatment, help, or attention from the court. You must still comply with the Rules of the Court, even if you are not familiar with them. The following is a list of some things the court staff can and cannot do for you. Please read it carefully before asking the court staff for help. 

  • We can explain and answer questions about how the court works.
  • We can tell you what the requirements are to have your case considered by the court.
  • We can give you some information from your case file.
  • We can provide you with samples of court forms that are available.
  • We can provide you with guidance on how to fill out forms.
  • We can usually answer questions about court deadlines.
  • We cannot give you legal advice. Only your lawyer can give you legal advice.
  • We cannot tell you whether or not you should bring your case to court.
  • We cannot give you an opinion about what will happen if you bring your case to court.
  • We cannot recommend a lawyer, but we can provide you with the telephone number of a local lawyer referral service.
  • We cannot talk to the judge for you about what will happen in your case.
  • We cannot let you talk to the judge outside of court.
  • We cannot change an order issued by a judge.

Filing a Lawsuit (Plaintiffs)

You can file a lawsuit in the civil division of the New Jersey Superior Court. 

  • If the lawsuit is for $5,000 or less, file with small claims
  • If your lawsuit is for an amount between $5,000 and $20,000, file with the special civil part 

When filing a lawsuit, you need to complete the packet “How to File a Complaint in the Superior Court of New Jersey Law Division – Civil Part”. The packet includes instructions for filing and the complaint form. The complaint needs to name the party or parties you are filing against. State the specific reason(s) for the lawsuit and the desired monetary relief. Most lawsuits are decided by a judge, but you can request a jury trial in the complaint form. 

Documentation you need to include when filing the complaint:

You can send the packet by certified mail or deliver it in person. Send the packet to your county’s civil division.  

The court will send file stamped copies of your documents, the TAN and the summons back to you. You must serve copies of those documents to everyone named in the lawsuit as soon as possible. 

Defending Yourself in Civil Court (Defendant)

If you received a summons for a lawsuit, you have 35 days to respond. After this time, you could lose the case by default judgment. To respond to a lawsuit summons, you need to complete the packet “How to File an Answer to a Complaint in Civil Court.” It includes the instructions and answer form. When sending the answer to the court, you need to include:

If you wish to countersue the plaintiff, include the counterclaim with your answer and CIS. If you wish to join the suit against another named defendant, include the cross-claim. You can consult staff in the civil division of Superior Court  where the case was filed for more information on counterclaims and cross-claims.

Deliver the packet or send it by certified mail to the court where the complaint was filed. 

Filing Fees & Waivers

To file a lawsuit complaint $250
To file an answer to a complaint $175
To file a motion in a civil suit $50

All checks must be made payable to Treasurer, State of New Jersey.

What is a fee waiver?

You may be able to file your case without paying the filing fee if you qualify. Complete the Fee Waiver form and submit the required documents to the court to see if you meet the guidelines.

You can apply for a fee waiver in any NJ state court: Supreme Court, Appellate Division, Superior Court and Tax Court.

Court filing and copy fees might be waived for litigants who

  1. Have income at or below 150 percent of the current poverty level (based on the number of people in the household; AND
  1. Have no more than $2,500 in liquid assets such as cash or bank accounts.

When to file an application for a fee waiver

Under Court Rule 1:5-6, the court clerk cannot file your case unless the required fee is included. In order to keep your case moving forward as quickly as possible, a fee waiver request should be filed with the court at the same time that you file your court case.

You can apply for a fee waiver even if you have a lawyer.

You may still request a fee waiver if your attorney either

  • works for Legal Services of New Jersey or an associated regional program; OR
  • works for a public interest or legal services organization, law school clinic or pro bono program that has been certified for fee waiver status by the Supreme Court under Court Rule 1:21-11.

Applying for a fee waiver in an appeal of a Superior Court case

To apply for a fee waiver in the Appellate Division of Superior Court, you must submit your application in the Superior Court in the county where your case was first filed. If your application is denied in Superior Court, you then have 20 days to apply for a fee waiver in the Appellate Division.

Applying for a fee waiver in an appeal of an agency determinations

Fee waivers in appeals of administrative agency decisions should be filed directly with the Appellate Division of Superior Court in Trenton.

If you win more than $2,000 in your court case, you will be required to pay back the filing fee for your case.

The public usually has the right to view fee waiver applications that have been filed with the court.

You may only file an application for a fee waiver for yourself. You may not apply for a fee waiver for anyone else, even if you have a Power of Attorney.

More Information

Court Rule 1:5-6

Directive 03-17 – Fee Waivers Based on Indigence

Preparing for Court

Once the answer is filed, the discovery period begins. During discovery, you can review all evidence from the plaintiff. Likewise, the plaintiff and their legal team can review your evidence. Cases are assigned to one of four tracks based on their complexity. More complex cases have a longer discovery period.

During any point of discovery, dispute resolution, or the trial, both sides can file motions with the court. The party filing the motion is called the moving party. Use the packet “How to File a Motion (Superior Court – Law Division – Civil Part)” to request a specific ruling or order. The packet includes instructions and the necessary forms to request the motion. Examples of motions include:

  • Motion to dismiss the complaint.
  • Motion for entry of default.
  • Motion to vacate a default judgment.
  • Motion for summary judgment.
  • Motion to compel discovery.

Deliver or send the completed forms along with the fee to the civil court for your lawsuit. 

To dispute a motion requested by the other party, complete the response packet. The response must be filed at least eight days prior to the return date on the motion. If the motion was for summary judgment, you must file the response at least 10 days prior to the return date on the motion. 

Prior to court, both parties will likely be referred to a dispute resolution process. The judge or either party can request dispute resolution. In some cases, the judge will mandate a dispute resolution program. The most common programs are civil mediation and arbitration. In mediation, a neutral third party helps both parties reach a settlement on their terms. In arbitration the neutral third-party makes a decision on the case. 

Use the Civil Search Portal to find a mediator, find out when your motion will be heard, and see your discovery end date.

Dispute resolution typically resolves most cases. In fact, only 2% of civil cases ever go to trial. The programs help expedite the process and often save both parties on court and attorney fees. However, if dispute resolution fails the case will escalate to a trial. 

During trial, both sides will present evidence and make oral arguments. The judge will make a final judgment on the case. If a jury trial was requested, the jury will decide the case. Either party can appeal the final judgment with the Appellate Court.

Collecting Your Money

If you were awarded a judgment in civil court, you are a judgment creditor.

You should contact the person who owes you the money, the judgment debtor, to talk about payment.

The court cannot guarantee payment.

Although the court will try to help you collect the money owed to you, it cannot guarantee your debt will be paid.

Fees and other costs for writs of execution

The filing fee is $35.

Other Costs:

  • Ten percent fee: The special civil part officer will charge the debtor an extra ten percent on top of whatever money is recovered for you.  
  • Mileage: Service fee:  $7 fee for the Special Civil Part Officer to deliver service of process (e.g., complaints, writs and wage executions) to defendant(s).  
  • Sales and Advertising: If the special civil part officer sells personal property to get the money you are owed, you might be charged for things like advertising the sale.

Writ of Execution

Read the How to Collect a Money Judgment brochure. 

A writ of execution is a court document that gives a special civil part officer the right to collect money from a judgment debtor’s bank account or personal property. Real estate cannot be used to collect money owed in the Special Civil Part.

Seizing a motor vehicle

You must be able to show that the vehicle is registered in the debtor’s name. You will need either:

  1. A certified of the title, or
  2. A certified lien search from the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission.

The debtor might have an outstanding loan or debt on the car. You must determine if there is value or equity in the debtor’s car before you ask a special civil part officer to take it.

Other items that could be used to satisfy a writ include:

  • Office or sports equipment
  • Household items
  • Jewelry
  • Clothing

The debtor can keep $1,000 worth of personal property and clothing. If the debtor does not have more than $1,000 worth of personal property, this method cannot be used by the special civil part officer to satisfy your judgment and to collect the money owed to you.

Bank levy (taking funds from a bank account)

Use packet How to File a Motion to Turn Over Funds.  

You can ask a special civil part officer to collect the money from the debtor’s bank account if the account is in New Jersey.

Special civil part officers are not required to search for the debtor’s bank accounts. You must provide the name of the bank, the address and no more than the last four digits of the account number, if possible. Do not provide the Special Civil Part Office with the debtor’s entire active financial account number. Provide it to the officer directly if necessary.

After the money has been levied upon by the special civil part officer, it is considered frozen. You must then file a motion to turn over funds with the court and serve a copy upon the debtor and the bank. If the court grants the motion, the judge will sign an order that the special civil part officer will deliver to the bank. The officer will take the money from the bank, deposit it into an official business trust account, and then mail a check to the creditor or creditor’s attorney by the 15th day of the following month.

Execution against wages (garnishing a debtor’s salary)

Use packet How to File a Wage Execution.

The judgment creditor can request an execution against a person's wages if the debtor works in New Jersey and earns more than $217.50 per week. To request a wage execution, send a Notice of Application for Wage Execution to the debtor by regular and certified mail. File a copy of the application and a statement of how you mailed the application to the debtor with the Office of the Special Civil Part in the county where the case was heard.

If the debtor objects to the wage execution, a hearing will be immediately scheduled by the court. If the debtor does not object or the court does not allow the objection, the court will order a wage execution to be delivered to the debtor's employer by the special civil part officer. The employer will hold back a portion of the debtor's wages and will send this money directly to the officer. The officer will deduct a 10 percent commission and send the rest to you.

If the money is not collected

Writs for wage executions can last for 20 years, but other writs expire in two years. After two years, the debtor can choose to:

  1. Request a new writ of execution from the court by following the same procedures used the first time in order to have the special civil officer keep trying to get the money; OR
  2. Request to have the judgment recorded as a lien against any real estate owned by the debtor. Once the judgment is recorded in the Superior Court, the debtor cannot sell with clear title any real estate owned in New Jersey until the debt is paid.

To get a lien, a Statement for Docketing from the Special Civil Part Office where the case was heard. You can send the Statement for Docketing, plus a $35 filing fee payable to Treasurer, State of New Jersey.