Representing Yourselfin Small Claims Court

August 13, 2023

This article is about what to expect, and how to prepare for going to small claims court. The money limits and rules for small claims courts vary a lot by State and County. Here is a link with a summary for all states:

Small claims describe courts where money disputes (up to a relatively small amount) are settled by a judge or a commissioner. A big problem with small claims judgments is that even if you win your case, it costs money to attempt to recover your judgment, and it is hard to find a good judgment enforcer or judgment buyer that will take such a relatively small judgment.

A small claims commissioner is a lawyer, or someone else with the right experience and education. While not officially a judge, a commissioner can perform most of the roles of an actual judge in small claims courts.

The reasons to go to small claims court include disputes over contracts, damages, wages, loans not repaid, etc. When the amount of money disputed is at or near the limit of the small claims court, it makes sense to go to small claims court where costs are cheaper than regular civil courts.

In small claims courts, you must represent yourself because you cannot hire a lawyer to represent you. You can hire an interpreter if English is not your primary speaking language sometimes at no cost. You can talk to a lawyer before you go to small claims court.) Representing yourself is not difficult, as long as you take the time to prepare yourself, and organize the evidence for your case.

Your success in small claims court depends on luck, the strength of your case, your attitude, your evidence, what the debtor presents, and your preparation. Being prepared helps to give you confidence. The first thing to remember is that you should make at least two copies of everything you will be presenting as evidence.

You must share copies of any written or photographic evidence that you want the judge to see, with the other party. The bailiff is the person you hand your evidence to, and if the judge instructs them to, they will hand your evidence to the judge. The bailiff is usually a gun-wearing deputy, who maintains order in the court.

In theory, you could show your one copy of your evidence to the opposing party, and then ask for it back. This does not always work smoothly. It is best to have extra copies for both the judge, and your opposing party to hold. You should be holding your copy too.

It is worthwhile to learn the laws (statutes) that apply to your case. If you are suing, make sure to file your lawsuit in the right county. The location is known as the venue. Usually, you must sue in the same county where the dispute took place. On a breach of contract, the venue for a lawsuit is where contract was entered into. For fraud (if you allege that), the venue is always the defendant’s county. Have everything organized, and ready to read and hand out.

When starting a lawsuit, make sure everyone is properly served. You cannot serve anyone yourself, so use a friend or hire a professional process server or a sheriff to separately serve everyone you are suing. Each person or entity you are suing needs to be served with a separate set of legal papers. If you are suing a company, find their agent for service of process.

If you need witnesses or paper records, you can get them by first getting permission from the court. By filling out the proper paperwork and having the right people served, you can subpoena paperwork, records, and people as witnesses you might need to prove your case.

As you would expect, courts are security-minded and do not allow distractions. Pretend you are at an airport. No knives or scissors, no cameras, no food or drink, and prepare for many delays. Use your waiting time to listen to how the commissioner handles cases, the pleadings, and the style of the court.

Your case might be called right away, but more likely you will have to wait 20 to 70 minutes to have your case heard. You may have to show up at court at 9 AM, but your case will not be heard until 10 AM. Show up early so you can go to the bathroom before the start time. Bring an iPod and discrete headphones or magazine or paperback book to read if needed, as you are not allowed to talk while waiting.

Dress neatly, be comfortable, and stay polite even if the other party is not. Sometimes the judge seems to decide cases as if they have seen other evidence that nobody else has seen.

If you win, you cannot appeal the decision. You can start the tedious process of attempting to enforce of your judgment or find a judgment enforcer.

If you lose, you can try to appeal the judgment decision, which starts basically a new trial. In some states if you lose and want to appeal, you usually must first buy a bond to insure you will pay if you lose the appeal.

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