When you’re having a financial dispute with another individual or a business, whether over claims for payment, medical expenses for an injury, work that wasn’t completed or another legal issue, you’re eligible to battle it out in small claims court.
Small claims is a civil court procedure that allows individuals or businesses to collect money in a minor dispute. The court settles small dollar amount cases, and the procedure itself incurs nominal legal fees, streamlined hearing processes, and immediate court decision-making.
In small claims court, the parties, i.e., plaintiffs and defendants, almost exclusively represent themselves without the service of lawyers, with some states even forbidding the involvement of legal counselors.
As your time in small claims court is typically short-lived, and you’re practically on your own standing in front of a judge and telling your side of the story, it’s essential you cover all case matters in a clear, structured, and effective manner to present your points.
If you’re preparing to present your case in small claims court, here are five tips to help set you up for success in the courtroom.
#1 Learn Your State’s Court Procedures
The small claims court processes are similar across states. Cases consist of a plaintiff, i.e., the claimant, who files a claim against the defendant.
In small claims court, both parties present their case to a judge, who afterward issues a decision. Case fees are paid by the plaintiff, and the defendant is eligible to file counterclaims against the judge’s decision.
The biggest difference between states is the limit of the amount of money that can be the subject of a small claims case. As money disparities can vary up to tens of thousands of dollars state-wise, it’s best you seek professional advice on whether your case is eligible for small claims court. If your claim doesn’t qualify for this type of court, your next step is to file a case to a general civil court.
#2 Organize Your Case Records & Documents
As the procedures of small claims cases are usually brief, you need to gather and organize all the documents that help prove your case. This might include contracts, emails, receipts, invoices, photos and more.
Make copies of your documents and organize them so the judge can easily locate and examine each one. Keeping records that will help you present a strong case is often the key to winning in small claims court.
Conversely, for the sake of achieving the best court outcome, you should refrain from documenting some other aspects of your life. At Spar & Bernstein, a New York law firm that specializes in both personal injury and immigration law, litigators advise refraining from social media use during the course of the trial.
As they state, “social media can negatively impact your personal injury claim.” For example, the opposing party can demand your social media details that can uncover your lifestyle and current physical condition and unearth potential contradictory statements or relationships with witnesses. And don’t rely on just switching your social profiles to private, as there are simple hacks to allow you access to private Instagram accounts.
#3 Prepare to Present Your Side
Besides categorized case documentation, organizing your presentation is another vital aspect that can make or break your small claims case. You only have a short period of time to deliver your evidence, so do so without bringing in the drama – only the facts.
Explain how the events unfolded and walk the judge through the process that led you to their courtroom. While speaking, remain calm, systematic, and sincere. Of course, the opposing party will make counter-arguments that you need to respond to with professionalism and civility.
#4 Call Reliable Witnesses
If you’re calling witnesses to take a stand in your small claims case, ensure they are credible and trustworthy. Witnesses add credibility to your account and can provide significant additional facts. If you are calling witnesses, make sure they are able to deliver an accurate version of the events in a professional manner.
Before you call someone as a witness, ensure their story aligns with yours. If your witness is reluctant to come to court, you can ask the judge to issue a subpoena, i.e., a court order that orders the witness to go to court and testify.
Finally, make sure your witness comes to court at the designated time. If they are unable to appear physically, witnesses can provide their written testimony and sign it “under penalty of perjury” to prove their account is authentic.
#5 Know What Actions To Take After Winning the Case
Winning a small claims case doesn’t mean walking out of the courtroom with pockets full of money. Although the opposing side has a specified time period to pay you, in many cases, they might not follow through.
You have several options for collecting your small claims win if the opposing party fails to pay. Most small claims judgments are valid for several years or more. Look into your options and consult a knowledgeable attorney if needed to determine next steps.
Overall, the key to winning in small claims court is to be prepared. Understand the processes ahead of time, gather and organize documents, practice your account of the events and follow up as needed after your court date.