Deciding Whether to Go to Court

Produced by Gary Allen
Reviewed May 2017

Before you decide to go to court, think carefully about the following:

  • Are there other ways to resolve your problem without going to court?
  • What can the court do?
  • What do you want the court to do?
  • Do you have a good case?
  • Whether the other side may sue you in the same action?
  • Do you need and can you get an attorney?

1. Resolving Your Problem Outside the Court System

Court cases can be lengthy, expensive, time-consuming, and emotionally draining. Many issues can be resolved outside the court system. When evaluating your case, you should consider whether you have tried all the reasonable alternatives. For example:

  • Have you contacted your landlord in writing more than once about making repairs, without results?
  • Have you contacted your city or town’s Board of Health or Inspectional Services?
  • Do other tenants have similar problems, and have you met with them to discuss taking action as a group?
  • Should you withhold rent or use the "repair and deduct" law?
  • Are there community groups in your area that work with tenants needing assistance?
  • If you owe rent, can you work out a payment plan for back rent that is realistic?

Court Remedies - What a Court Can Do

If your landlord violates the law, there are a number of ways that a court may be able to help you. These are called remedies. You may ask the court for any or all of the following remedies, depending on the circumstances in your case.

  • Money Damages: A judge can award you money or damages to compensate you for the harm that you have suffered. The law calls money awards damages.
  • Injunction or Restraining Order: A judge can order your landlord to do something to correct a problem or to stop doing something that is illegal. This order is called an injunction. The most common type of injunction that tenants use is called a temporary restraining order, or TRO. A TRO is the fastest type of order that you can get from a court, but it also ends quickly. You can get a TRO to order your landlord to let you back into your apartment if she locked you out, to fix the heat if she refuses to repair it, or to prevent very serious conditions from getting worse. When a TRO ends, you can ask the judge to keep the injunction active for a longer period of time.
  • Judgment: A judgment is the court’s final decision. It resolves the disagreements the parties had and declares who won the case. A judgment gives you the right to pursue certain remedies. For example, in a civil case, the judgment typically tells one party to pay money to the other, or in a summary process (eviction) case, there could be an order instructing the tenant to vacate the premises.
  • Criminal Sanction: A judge can fine or jail your landlord for a violation of criminal law.
  • Appoint a receiver: A judge can appoint another person to take over the management of your building. This is usually a remedy of last resort. For more information, see Chapter 8: Getting Repairs Made – Receivership.

In addition to the remedies listed above, a court may provide staff to help you resolve your problem through voluntary mediation. For more about mediation, see Chapter 12: Evictions – Settling Your Case and Chapter 14: Using the Court System - Mediation.

2. What Do You Want the Court to Do

If you feel that one or more of the remedies listed above would help you, going to court and asking a judge for help may be a good approach to solving certain problems. For example:

  • Do you want a court to order your landlord to make repairs?
  • Do want a court to order the landlord to rent to you because a landlord made a decision not to rent to you based on illegal discrimination?
  • Do you want your security deposit back?
  • Do you want to be compensated for living with bad conditions and not receiving the full value of your apartment?

These are all reasons to seek help from a court. Note: Tenants and landlords must not use the court system to intentionally harass, intimidate, frustrate, or hurt someone.

Find Legal Aid

You may be able to get free legal help from your local legal aid program. Or email a question about your own legal problem to a lawyer.

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