After the complaint has been filed and the defendant served, both sides need to prepare their cases for court. The trial will usually be scheduled 15 to 30 days after the defendant's answer to the plaintiff's claim is filed with the court. If you choose, you may be represented by an attorney but there are no jury trials in small claims cases in Georgia.
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. Contact any witnesses who have agreed to testify and inform them of the hearing date. Subpoena documents or summon witnesses to appear in court, if needed.
Both parties should bring all witnesses and necessary papers with them when they appear for the trial. Extra copies should be made for the judge and the other party. The plaintiff must prove the amount of damages and the party with the more convincing proof will win the 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, agreements and so forth
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 important to your claim but won't voluntarily come to court, you have the right to subpoena the witness and force that person to come to court. A subpoena is a command to appear before the judge in order to give testimony or produce evidence. A subpoena can be obtained from the clerk of the magistrate court. The fee for serving (delivering) a subpoena ranges from $5 to $25. Some counties include this cost in the filing fee.
Some counties require mediation prior to a hearing before the judge. This allows the parties to try to settle the case without a hearing. Even if the parties agree to settle out of court, the plaintiff may ask the defendant to pay the court costs. If they can't agree to settle, the judge will instruct both parties about courtroom procedure and hear the arguments presented by both sides.
On the day of the trial, both parties must appear on time before the judge and testify. The court will also hear the defendant's counterclaim, if one has been filed. The plaintiff and defendant may question or dispute each other's testimony during the hearing.
The plaintiff goes first and presents any evidence or witnesses. After each of the plaintiff's witnesses have testified, the defendant may ask the witnesses any questions about their testimony. The defendant goes after the plaintiff and presents any evidence and testimony. The plaintiff may also ask the defendant and the defendant's witnesses questions about their testimony.
If you think the other party or a witness is not telling the truth, you should ask questions which would expose this fact to the judge. Be polite and courteous to any witnesses and others in the courtroom. State your position in a respectful tone and keep it brief.
Failure of Plaintiff to Appear in Court
The plaintiff must appear in court on the day of the hearing, or the judge may:
- Allow the defendant to present testimony and give a judgment, without hearing from the plaintiff
- Postpone the case until a later date
- Dismiss the case
Failure of Defendant to Appear in Court
The defendant must appear in court on the day of the hearing, or the judge may grant a default judgment in favor of the plaintiff. If the judge grants a default judgment, the plaintiff is entitled to the amount of money damages specified in the suit. Be prepared, because the judge may ask for your proof to support your claim, even if the defendant didn't show up.
After both parties have presented their witnesses, testimony and evidence, the judge will make a decision, called a judgment, and record that decision in the court's records. The judge may grant an award of monetary damages to the plaintiff, to the defendant or both.
Once the judge has made a decision, the clerk will prepare the judgment in writing, the judge will sign the judgment and each party will be mailed a copy of the judgment.
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?