After the complaint has been filed and the defendant served, both sides need to prepare their case for court. The magistrate will decide the case based on the evidence presented. The burden of proof is on the plaintiff to prove his or her case.
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 magistrate on your trial date. The magistrate 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 magistrate 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 magistrate 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 if you are unsure whether the witness will attend the hearing, you can get a subpoena from the clerk to compel the witness to come to court. A subpoena is a court order that instructs the witness to appear at the place, time and date listed in the subpoena.
You will need to have that person served with a subpoena, just as if he or she were being served with other court papers. If the subpoenaed person does not show up, the magistrate can issue an arrest warrant to make him or her appear.
On the day of the trial, both parties must appear on time before the magistrate and testify. 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 present an inexpensive and speedy method of hearing your claim. Showing up prepared helps the magistrate make a decision.
You should direct all questions and statements to the magistrate. Don't talk to the other party, and always conduct yourself in a courteous manner.
Default or Dismissal
If you aren't in court on time, it can mean that you lose your case. If the plaintiff appears, but the defendant doesn't, the magistrate can enter a default. That means the defendant loses, without an opportunity to be heard, and the plaintiff will probably get everything he or she is asking for.
If the defendant appears, but the plaintiff doesn't, the magistrate can enter a default or dismissal with prejudice. That means the defendant wins and the plaintiff will not have a chance to bring that claim again anywhere else. However, if the defendant is on active duty in the military, special rules apply.
Motion to Set Aside
If a dismissal or default is entered, the losing party can ask the magistrate to change his or her mind. The losing party will have to file a "Motion to Set Aside" within 30 days of the judgment or dismissal and explain why he or she did not appear at court when scheduled. Generally, these motions are not granted.
After both parties have presented their witnesses, testimony and evidence, the magistrate will decide who prevails in the case. It is the winner's responsibility to make sure that the loser pays the amount the magistrate orders.
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?