After the complaint has been filed and the defendant served, both sides need to prepare their case for court. The judge will decide the case based on the evidence presented by you and the other party. The burden of proof is on the plaintiff to prove his or her case.
Write a Case Summary
As part of your preparation for trial, you may want to write a summary of your side of the case or at least a brief outline and refer to it during the trial so you won't forget to mention any important details.
Bring Estimates to Court
It's important to have written estimates of costs relating to your claim. The plaintiff and the defendant may want to bring estimates if the amount of damages is in dispute.
Settlement before Trial
If you and the opposing party have reached a settlement before the trial, put the settlement in writing and have both parties sign the agreement. Bring the settlement to court and present it to the judge on your trial date. The judge will sign the agreement, making it a court order that can be enforced.
Preparing for Trial
You should gather documents, select witnesses, prepare what you will say in court, decide on the order in which you will present your evidence and formulate questions to ask the witnesses. Extra copies of documents should be made for the judge and the other party.
You will want to present evidence at the trial. Evidence is anything that helps you prove your case. The evidence you should bring to trial to support your claims or defenses includes:
- Documents such as contracts, notes, leases, receipts, canceled checks, credit card statements, bills, invoices and agreements
It is up to the plaintiff on the original claim and the defendant on any counterclaim to persuade the judge that their position and claim is valid.
Determine if there are any witnesses who can come to court with you and help you tell your story. You should avoid witnesses who only know what someone else told them, that is, only have second hand information. Try to get witnesses who know relevant facts because they were there.
If a witness is reluctant about appearing in court or you are unsure whether the witness will attend the hearing, you can get a subpoena from the court clerk to compel the witness to come to court.
On the day of the trial, both parties must appear on time before the judge and testify. You may not appear with an attorney. The court will also hear the defendant's counterclaim, if one has been filed.
Show up prepared to present you side. The purpose of the small claims division is to provide an inexpensive and speedy method of hearing your claim. Showing up prepared helps the judge make a decision.
You should direct all questions and statements to the judge. Don't talk to the other party. The judge will ask for the evidence and the witnesses so you should not present them until the judge asks for them.
Even though trials in small claims court are generally informal, you are still expected to conduct yourself in a courteous manner. A judge may hold you in contempt of court if discourteous conduct or arguments continue after a warning by the judge. If you are held in contempt of court, you may be fined or jailed. Do not argue with the judge, interrupt the other party or witnesses or make personal attacks on any person.
After both parties have presented their witnesses, testimony and evidence, the judge will either decide the case or will take the case under advisement and inform you later of the decision.
The court only decides who should prevail in a given suit. Courts are only responsible for deciding disputes and not for enforcing their decisions. It is the winner's responsibility to make sure that the loser pays the amount the judge orders.
If the defendant does not show up or answer the plaintiff's complaint, the judge may enter a default judgment. A default judgment gives the plaintiff the damages asked for in the complaint.
If the plaintiff fails to show up on the date set, the judge will dismiss the lawsuit. If the defendant has filed a counterclaim, the judge may award a default judgment to the defendant giving the defendant the amount asked for in the counterclaim.
Questions for Your Attorney
- Can an attorney come with me into the courtroom?
- What should I take with me to court?
- What happens if I can't make it to court on my scheduled trial date?