Our first two chapters presented general information on the small claims court and on how to begin a lawsuit, while Chapter 3 focused on steps defendants might take in response to a lawsuit. Now, it’s time to prepare for the hearing.
Small claims judges hear dozens of cases each day. So, while you may wait several hours to have your case called, the hearing itself could last as little as 5 minutes. That is why it is critical that you show up organized and ready to present and/or defend your case. Here are some suggestions to ensure you put your best foot forward.
1. Type up a one-page explanation, bullet points, chronology of events, or a table/chart that explains what happened. Some judges will accept copies of prepared documents, so be sure to make copies for the judge and for the opposing side. If you have time, file this summary with the court at least 5 days in advance of the hearing, and serve a copy (send it in the mail) on the other side. The judge may review the file ahead of the hearing and having your summary will give you a leg up in explaining your side of the case.
2. Prepare notes for what you want to say and stick to the facts. Too often, litigants let their emotions get the best of them and spend their time talking about how angry, upset, or hurt they are, instead of proving their case or rebutting the other side. While this may feel good in the moment, it’s unlikely to help you win your case. Judges are frequently trying to see how the facts fall into well-established law, and prepared notes should help you stay focused on the facts.
3. Practice your presentation. The judge will start off by asking each side to state what happened. Often, the side with the clearest and most concise explanation, wins the day. The key is to feel comfortable explaining your position. If you are not someone who is naturally comfortable arguing in public, practicing ahead of time will help settle your nerves and allow you to efficiently present your case to the court.
4. If your case involves documents, photographs, or other pieces of evidence, consider making copies of everything and placing them in an organized binder (with tabs). Provide a copy for the judge and one for the other side. During the hearing, you can refer to the documents by tab number to help the judge follow along.
5. If your case involves physical evidence (a destroyed laptop, a specific broken piece of equipment, etc.) be sure to bring it with you.
6. If your case involves witnesses, make sure they are with you on the day of the hearing. If they won’t appear willingly, you can issue a subpoena, which is a court order requiring the witness to appear and bring documents (the form is available here). Alternatively, you can try to get a declaration from them (dated and signed under penalty of perjury) laying out what they saw.
In the end, most small claims judges will tell you that the hardest part of their job is trying to get all the facts they need to make a ruling in the short amount of time they have to hear the evidence. If you properly prepare using the steps above, you should be able to show up on the day of the hearing with: (1) your evidence organized, (2) your notes organized, and (3) prepared for your argument. Even if you only have five minutes to speak, these steps will go a long way to positioning your case for success.
Of course, practicing and preparing won’t make much of a difference if you are not able to effectively present your case on the day of the hearing. Fear not: Chapter 5 of our Small Claims, Big Impact series will provide you with everything you need to succeed on the day of the hearing. Stay tuned.
* The contents of this blog post are informational only, and do not constitute legal advice. Additionally, because we are California lawyers, it focuses primarily on California.