Someone owes you money and you decided to file a small claims lawsuit to get it. When you, the "plaintiff," filed the Complaint, the clerk of the justice court scheduled a trial date. Since then, the person you sued, the "defendant," never offered to pay you, or "settle" the case. Maybe you even 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 day a Montana small claims court will finally decide if you win or lose. It's the day you've been waiting for. So, before you go the courthouse, it's a good idea for you to know how the trial process works and what you can do to help convince the court that you should win.
Both you and the defendant have to show up or "appear" for trial on the date and at the time scheduled by the justice court clerk when you filed your Complaint. 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, bills 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 in court). If possible, offer them a ride to the courthouse.
The trial will be heard by a judge or a "justice of the peace." The trial process itself is simple and straight-forward:
- The court clerk will "call" your case, usually by its docket number and by your and the defendant's names. You, the defendant and any witnesses will be sworn in
- The judge will ask you to explain your case first. At this time, you'll also present your evidence (documents and photographs, etc.), and your witnesses will testify, too. Usually, the judge will ask you and your witnesses questions
- The defendant is then asked to explain why he shouldn't have to pay you or return the property to you. The defendant will present his evidence and witnesses at this time
- The judge may ask you, the defendant or any witnesses more questions if she needs to clarify or understand something about the case
- With the judge's permission, you'll be given the chance to respond to each other's statements, ask each other questions, and question each other's witnesses
- The judge will decide who wins; the decision is called the "judgment." She may 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), 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
- 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 property that's rightfully yours. Likewise, if you're the defendant and you filed a counterclaim against the plaintiff, you have to prove that he owes you money or has your 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 judge 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 appear at trial, you may win automatically. The judge will enter a "default judgment" awarding you the amount of your claim, or the property you sued for, 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 you filed when you started the lawsuit. Likewise, the defendant may be given a default judgment against you if he filed a counterclaim and you don'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?