You may have seen the movie "My Cousin Vinny," where "Vinny" doesn't know how to behave in court and the judge ends up sending him to jail for contempt. Thankfully, you won't if you follow a few guidelines when you appear in court for your hearing.
Some things you should remember for your "day in court:"
- Plan to arrive at least 15 minutes prior to the scheduled hearing so that you can be cleared by security on time
- All persons must be dressed appropriately in business-type clothing
- Hats should be removed when entering the courtroom
- Food and beverages, with the exception of water for counsel and contract interpreters, aren't permitted in the courtrooms
- Some courts prohibit the use of any recording devices in the hearing
- The use of cameras, beepers or cell phones during the hearing isn't permitted so they must be turned off
- All parties should rise when the judge enters and court is called into session
- Talking during someone else's hearing isn't allowed in court
- All parties waiting outside while court is in session must be courteous and quiet
- Parents with court hearings whose young children aren't involved with the proceedings shouldn't bring their children to court
Following these guidelines will make you seem more together and therefore your case taken more seriously.
Preparing for your Hearing
Before the date of the hearing, you should gather all the evidence that supports your claim or your defense. Evidence may include: photographs, a written agreement, an itemized bill or invoice marked "paid," receipts, written estimates of the cost of services or repairs (you must present two different itemized estimates for services or repairs), a cancelled check, a damaged item or article of clothing, or letters or other written documents.
The small claims court clerk will announce your case and call the claimant's name. If the claimant and defendant are both ready, the case will go forward to trial. The claimant has the burden of proving the claim and any damages. The claimant's case is presented first.
After being sworn as a witness, the claimant must tell his version of the incident. All papers or other evidence are shown at this time. When the claimant is finished testifying, the judge or arbitrator or the defendant may ask some questions to clarify matters. Other witnesses can be presented in support of the claim, and can also be questioned. All witnesses are sworn in.
After the claimant offers all the evidence that supports his claim, the defendant will take an oath and tell her side of the story. The defendant may offer papers and other evidence and can call other witnesses to testify on her behalf. The defendant and any witnesses testifying for the defendant also must take an oath. They can be questioned by the judge or arbitrator and the claimant.
During the hearing, the judge or arbitrator should determine a defendant's true business name. If the legal name of the business is different from the name that is written on your notice of claim, the claimant should ask the court to have the name on the notice of claim corrected by the clerk.
It's the claimant's responsibility to collect information on the defendant's assets (i.e. property that the defendant owns) in case the claimant receives a judgment in his favor and the defendant doesn't pay. The claimant can ask the judge or arbitrator to question the defendant about assets. The judge or arbitrator can direct the defendant not to sell or give away those assets before paying any amount the claimant is awarded.
After the claimant and the defendant have offered all their evidence, the judge or arbitrator will normally "reserve decision," which means they need time to evaluate the evidence. The decision is mailed to the claimant and the defendant after the hearing. Occasionally, the judge or arbitrator may announce the decision immediately after the hearing.
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?