Someone owes you money and you decided to file a small claims lawsuit. When you filed the Statement of Small Claim and Notice of Trial, the court clerk gave you a trial date. The defendant never offered to pay you, or "settle" the case. You tried mediation - where a neutral third party tried to get you both to agree to a compromise - but that didn't work.
Now it's time for the trial. The Massachusetts small claims court, or "people's court," is about to decide if you win or lose. It's the day you've been waiting for. So, it's a good idea for you 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 when filed your Statement of Claim and Notice. 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 them a ride to the courthouse with you.
The trial will be heard by a magistrate, who's also known as a "magistrate-clerk" and sometimes as "clerk." You, the defendant, and all of the witnesses will be sworn in. The trial process itself is simple and straight-forward:
- Usually, the magistrate will ask you to explain your case. At this time, you'll also present your evidence (documents and photographs, etc.), and your witnesses should testify, too. The defendant can ask you and your witnesses questions, and the magistrate 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 magistrate may ask you, the defendant, or any witnesses more questions if she needs to clarify or understand something about the case
- The magistrate will make a judgment. She can do this either immediately after everyone has testified, or she can take the case "under consideration," which means she needs more time to think about it. If that happens (and it's very common), the magistrate will make a decision and mail it to you and the defendant within 10 days after the trial
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 magistrate that the defendant owes you money.
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 magistrate 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 magistrate. Also, don't speak directly to the other party unless the magistrate gives you permission to do so
Failure to Appear
If you fail to appear at trial, the judge will dismiss your claim. If the defendant doesn't appear at trial, you win automatically. The magistrate 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 magistrate that your claim against the defendant is valid. If neither you nor defendant show up, the case will be dismissed.
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 magistrate 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?