people's Lawyer


How to Sue in Small Claims Court
What Happens At The Trial? 

In most courts, once the defendant is served with notice, the trial date will be set. In other courts, the date may be set by order and you will be responsible for giving notice of the trial date to the defendant. Telephone the clerk and double check your trial date. Find out the time that the court will hear your trial. Make sure you are there at the time the trial is scheduled to begin. If you are not on time, you may have your case dismissed. Once the case is set for trial, only legal excuses for not going to trial will be accepted. If you are there, but not ready, your case may be dismissed.

When you arrive, take a seat in the courtroom. Procedures vary from court to court. Usually, the court will go through a "docket call." Answer when your case is called. Some judges will ask you whether you are ready to proceed with your case. You should answer "ready." He will then ask the person you are suing the same question.

Most judges will briefly explain the procedure to be used in your trial. If you are confused about anything he says, or if you have other questions, do not be afraid to ask the judge. When the trial begins, the judge will ask you and your witnesses to swear to tell the truth. The judge will also swear in the person you are suing before he tells his side of the controversy.

You will have the first chance to tell your story. Go through the statement you previously prepared. Call your witnesses one at a time to testify. If you have photographs, have someone testify about what each photograph shows. For example, if you have photographs of a damaged item, have someone testify that the photograph accurately depicts how the item looked at the time the damage occurred. If you have documents, have someone testify about what each document is. If you have brought anything with you, now is the time to show it to the court.

Take your time so that the judge can understand the points you are trying to make. If the judge does not understand you, or wants something made clearer, he may ask you some questions. You will have an opportunity to tell your story without being interrupted by the other side. When you are finished, however, the person you are suing will have a chance to ask you and your witnesses questions.

After both you and your witnesses have told the judge what you know, the person you are suing will explain why he thinks he should not have to pay you any money. It may be his position that you are wrong in the way you say the events occurred. Or he may say that your story is correct but that you are demanding too much money. He also has a chance to tell his story without interruption. After he is finished, you can ask both him and his witnesses questions. The judge may also ask them questions.

You cannot make statements to the witnesses. Ask them questions. You cannot argue with the witnesses about their testimony. If you think the person you are suing or his witnesses are not telling the truth, you should ask questions which would expose this fact to the judge. Be polite and courteous to the witnesses and others in the courtroom. Obey the court's instructions. Be brief and to the point. State your position in a respectful tone.

Don't try and play Perry Mason. This is not the time to "object" to everything the other side says. A nonlawyer generally cannot back up objections with legal argument. In fact, many small claims court judges will not even entertain formal objections. You will probably find it better not to make objections during the trial of your case.

Be sure that you present facts to the court that establish that the defendant owes you money and show how much money he owes you. The burden of proof is on you. If the person you are suing does not appear in court at the appointed time, and he has received proper notice of this trial, then the judge will grant judgment in your favor for the amount you prove that you are due.

If you want a jury trial, the same procedure described above will be followed, but before you begin telling your story, both you and the person you are suing will be given a list of the names of potential jury members. You will be allowed to question these people and then decide which of them you do not wish to be on the jury. You may disqualify three of them for any reason (called a "peremptory challenge"). You may disqualify others if you show the judge that there is some fact which by the law disqualifies a person from serving as a juror or which convinces the judge that a person is unfit to be on the jury. For example, you may discover that one of the potential jurors is a close relative of the person you are suing. This fact would normally be enough to disqualify this person and would not count as one of your three peremptory challenges. This procedure will be explained to you in more detail by the judge if you ask him.

After the judge has heard the facts from both sides, including the witnesses, and everyone has asked all the questions he wants to ask, the judge will then decide who wins the case and the amount, if any, the winner should receive. He may want more time to think about the case. If so, he will probably tell you when you can expect a decision. If the judge does not decide the case while you are there, remember that you will need to know what the "case number" of your case is. This number will enable the clerk to find the result quickly when you call later to find out the judge's decision.

If you or the person you are suing has chosen to have a jury trial, the jury, and not the judge, will usually decide whether you have won your case. If the jury decides that you have won, it will also decide the amount of money you should receive from the person you are suing.