Someone owes you money, or won't return your personal property, so you decided to file a small claims lawsuit to get it back. After you filed the Complaint, the court clerk gave you a trial date. The defendant (the person you sued) never offered to "settle" the case by paying or giving you the property. You tried mediation, where a neutral third party tried to get you both to agree to a compromise, but that didn't work.
So, now it looks like the case will go to trial where the Alaska small claims court will decide who wins and who loses. It's a big day, and if you want it to go well, you need to know how the trial process works and what you need to do to help make sure you win.
Both you and the defendant have to show up or "appear" for trial on the date and at the time scheduled by the district court clerk. Be on time and be ready. Get to the courthouse at least one hour before the scheduled time, just in case the court is moving ahead of schedule or there's a problem with your paperwork.
Bring everything you've gathered to prove your case, like receipts and photographs. And, make sure your witnesses know where the court is, when they need to be there and what testimony they'll give (what they need to say). If possible, offer to drive them to the courthouse for the trial.
In some Alaska small claims courts, before the trial begins, you and the defendant may be asked if you're willing to have the case go to a mediator to try and work out a settlement. If you both don't agree to mediation, or if you agree to it but you can't settle your dispute, the case will go to trial. The trial will be heard either by a district court judge or a "magistrate." A magistrate is usually an experienced attorney who's been appointed by the district court to help with certain types of cases, such as small claims cases.
The trial process itself is simple and straightforward:
- The clerk will "call" your case by announcing out loud the docket number of the case and your and the defendant's name. You, the defendant and all of the witnesses will be sworn in
- You'll be asked to explain your case. At this time, you'll also present your evidence (documents and photographs, etc.), and your witnesses will testify, too. The defendant can ask you and your witnesses questions, and the judge often asks questions as well
- The defendant is then asked to explain why he shouldn't have to pay you. The defendant will present his evidence and witnesses at this time. And, you can ask him and his witnesses questions
- The judge may ask you, the defendant or any witnesses more questions if she needs to clarify or understand something about the case
- The judge will make a decision on who wins, which is called a "judgment." She can do this either immediately after everyone has testified, or she can take the case "under advisement," which means she needs more time to think about it. If that happens, you and the defendant will be notified by mail about the decision
The evidence you should bring to trial to support your claims or defenses includes:
- Documents such as contracts, notes, leases, receipts, work orders, bids and estimates, police reports and the like
- The damaged goods you're suing over, or photographs of the goods
- Photographs or illustrations that explain what happened, such as where a car accident happened
- Any letters, e-mail messages or other correspondence between you and the other party
As plaintiff, you have the burden of proof. That means you have to convince the judge that the defendant owes you money or has personal property that rightfully belongs to you. Likewise, if the defendant filed a counterclaim against you, he has to prove to the judge that you owe him money or have his property.
You should follow these general suggestions for courtroom conduct:
- Be on time for your trial, and dress as nicely as you can. This shows the judge that you're taking the trial seriously
- Stick to the issues in dispute when presenting your case
- Be polite at all times and don't interrupt the judge. Also, don't speak directly to the other party unless the magistrate gives you permission to do so
Failure to Appear
If neither you nor defendant show up at trial, the case will be dismissed. If you fail to appear at trial, the judge will dismiss your claim. If the defendant doesn't file an answer or doesn't show up for trial, you may win automatically. The judge will enter a judgment (called a "default judgment") awarding you the amount of your claim, plus your court costs or filing fees. In the case of a default, you still need to show the judge that your claim against the defendant is valid and that he was properly served with a copy of your Complaint and other papers. Likewise, the defendant may get a default judgment against you if he filed a counterclaim and you didn't show up at trial to defend it.
Questions for Your Attorney
- Do I have to appear at trial even if I hire you to represent me in the small claims suit?
- I was in a car accident on my way to trial and I didn't make it in time. The judge dismissed my case. What can I do?
- A witness I need for my trial won't answer my phone calls or letters. Is there anyway I can make her show up at trial?