You filed a lawsuit in a New Jersey Small Claims Court because someone owes you money and refuses to pay it. When you filed the Small Claims Complaint and Summons, the court clerk gave you a trial date (or a trial date was mailed to you). The defendant never paid you. You tried mediation or a settlement conference - where a neutral third party tried to get you both to settle the case - but that didn't work.
Now it's time for the trial, and the court is about to decide if you win or lose. It's the day you've been waiting for. Before you show up at the courthouse, though, you need to have an understanding of how the trial process works and what you can do to increase your chances of winning.
Both you and the defendant have to show up or "appear" for trial on the date and at the time scheduled by court clerk when 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 and photographs. And, make sure your witnesses know where the court is, when they need to be there, and what they'll say while testifying. If possible, offer to give them a ride to the courthouse so you're certain they'll be there.
The trial will be heard by a judge without a jury, unless the defendant made a written demand for a jury and paid a fee for a jury trial. The judge will usually ask you and defendant to try to settle the case. If it can't be settled, the judge will hear the case, usually that same day.
At trial, you, the defendant, and all of the witnesses will be sworn in. The trial process itself is simple and straight-forward:
- Usually, the judge will ask you to explain your case. This is when you'll present your evidence (documents and photographs, etc.) and testimony from your witnesses. The defendant can ask you and your witnesses questions, and the judge often asks questions, too
- The defendant is then given a chance to explain why she shouldn't have to pay you. She'll present her evidence and witnesses at this time. And, you can ask her and her witnesses questions
- The judge may ask you, the defendant, or any witnesses more questions if he needs to clarify or understand something about the case
- The judge will make a decision or "judgment" and the clerk will enter the judgment into the court record
The evidence you should bring to trial to support your claims or defenses includes:
- Canceled checks, money orders, and sales receipts
- Bills, contracts, estimates, leases and other any other documents related to your claim or defense
- Photographs or illustrations that explain what happened, such as where a car accident happened
- Any letters, emails, 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.
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 serious about the trial
- Stick to the issues in dispute when presenting your case
- Be polite at all times and don't interrupt the judge, the other party, or any witnesses . Also, don't speak directly to the other party unless the judge gives you permission to do so
Failure to Appear
If you don't show up at trial, the judge will dismiss your claim. If the defendant doesn't appear, you win automatically. The judge will enter a judgment (called a "judgment by default" or "default judgment") and usually will award you the amount of your claim, plus your court costs or filing fees. In the case of a default, the judge may hold a proof hearing where you'll need to prove:
- The amount of money that the defendant owes you, and
- That the defendant isn't an active member of the U.S. military (this doesn't apply if the defendant is a business)
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 had a medical emergency on my scheduled trial date and the judge dismissed my case. What can I do?
- I lost in small claims court. Can I appeal?