If you’ve seen Judge Judy or one of the other popular court shows on TV, you may think you know how a courtroom functions. The truth is that these shows could not be further from reality. Most people have never set foot inside of a courtroom, and many are unsure of how to go about filing or responding to a small claims action.
Although small claims courts throughout the United States have somewhat different requirements and limitations for the types of cases they will hear, they do have some things in common. The most unifying aspect of small claims courts is that the claim for damages is limited to a certain dollar amount, typically $5,000-$7,000. Additionally, most small claims courts do not allow the parties to have attorneys in the courtroom. For these reasons small claims court can be a cost-effective alternative to bringing a full blown lawsuit in a higher court, but without the aid of an attorney many litigants are at a loss for how to prepare their case. Luckily, there are numerous location-specific self-help resources available for bringing a case in small claims court, many of which can be found through Court Reference.
Additionally, there are some more general tips applicable to any small claims case. The following, though not legal advice, are some useful ideas to keep in mind either when filing a small claims case or when you have been sued in small claims court.
File the Complaint
First and perhaps most important, if you are the person bringing the small claims case, you must properly file a complaint. The complaint should include at minimum, the name and address of the person you are suing, a brief description of events, an exact dollar amount you are owed and any relevant dates. The complaint needs to be served on the answering party, meaning the other party needs to receive a copy of the complaint and notice that they are being sued. Sometimes small claims courts have their own servers but generally you will need to have somebody other than yourself serve the other party. It is important to look up the requirements for proper service in your location. You will also be responsible for any fees associated with filing and service.
Prepare Your Case
Whether you are bringing or answering a small claims case, it is necessary to spend some time preparing your case. First, gather any relevant documents or other evidence and organize it all in a meaningful way for the judge. Write out the events in chronological order so you have a reference for yourself in the courtroom; it might also be helpful to practice stating your case or have a friend ask you questions about the case so that you are prepared for anything the judge might want to know. Lastly, spend time talking to any witnesses relevant to your case (whether you think they will “help” you or not, it is important to know what they might say in court). Arrange to have them come to court on your court date and write down any question you want to ask them when they testify.
In the Courtroom
The way you appear and conduct yourself in court is more important than you may think. Treat the process with respect – arrive early and dress appropriately (business casual or a suit is always a safe bet). Always address the judge as “Your Honor” and do not approach the bench without permission. Do not interrupt the other party or fall into raising your voice or name calling. These things may seem obvious now, but in the heat of the moment it is surprising how many people lose their cool.
Again, this blog cannot provide you with legal advice and therefore it is always in your best interest to consult a lawyer regarding any type of legal action. However, the topics covered above are generally applicable to any small claims case. Further research can be done by clicking through to your home state on the Court Reference website and selecting the “self help” category from the drop down menu. There you will find helpful small claims links for nearly every state in the Union.