After the complaint has been filed and the defendant served, both sides need to prepare their case for court. The judge will decide the case based on the evidence presented by you and the other party. The burden of proof is on the plaintiff to prove his or her case.
Write a Case Summary
As part of your preparation for trial, you may want to write a summary of your side of the case or at least a brief outline and refer to it during the trial so you won't forget to mention any important details.
Bring Estimates to Court
It's important to have written estimates of costs relating to your claim. The plaintiff and the defendant may want to bring estimates if the amount of damages is in dispute.
Settlement before Trial
If you and the opposing party have reached a settlement before the trial, put the settlement in writing and have both parties sign the agreement. Bring the settlement to court and present it to the judge on your trial date. The judge will sign the agreement, making it a court order that can be enforced.
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. Extra copies of documents should be made for the judge and the other party.
You will want to present evidence at the trial. Evidence is anything that helps you prove your 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, bills, invoices and agreements
It is up to the plaintiff on the original claim and the defendant on any counterclaim to persuade the judge that their position and claim is valid.
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 reluctant about appearing in court or you are unsure whether the witness will attend the hearing, you can get a subpoena from the clerk to compel the witness to come to court. There isn't a fee for the subpoena, but you will need to pay a fee to a sheriff or constable to have the subpoena served.
If you receive a subpoena to appear as a witness, you must obey it since it is a court order. Failure to appear in court in response to a subpoena could place you in contempt of court.
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 tells their side of the case first and then the defendant is given a chance to ask the plaintiff and the plaintiff's witnesses questions about the testimony or evidence. The defendant then tells their side of the case and the plaintiff has a chance to ask questions.
Even though trials in small claims court are generally informal, you are still expected to conduct yourself in a courteous manner. A judge may hold you in contempt of court if discourteous conduct or arguments continue after a warning by the judge. If you are held in contempt of court, you may be fined or jailed. Don't argue with the judge, interrupt the other party or witnesses or make personal attacks on any person.
After both parties have presented their witnesses, testimony and evidence, the judge will either decide the case or will take the case under advisement and inform you later of the decision.
If the defendant didn't file an answer to plaintiff's claim, the court will enter a judgment against the defendant by default for the full amount of the claim without further notice to the defendant.
The judge may dismiss the case if the plaintiff fails to appear at the time and place set for 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?