Small Claims, Big Impact - Chapter 5: Your Day In Court

Our first two chapters provided general information on the small claims court and on how to begin a lawsuit. Chapter 3 focused on steps defendants might take in response to a lawsuit.  Chapter 4 provided an overview of how to prepare for the actual hearing. Now, the big day has finally arrived: it’s time to attend and argue at the small claims hearing. 

You may have watched every episode of Law & Order and believe yourself to be ready to go, but here are some tips to ensure you walk out of the courtroom feeling like a winner.*

1.      Arrive early.  Courthouses are big and security can take a while, so be sure to give yourself plenty of time.  Once you show up, check in with the clerk, and then take your seat. 

2.      Expect a packed house.  Small claims judges keep very long calendars, and that means you should expect to wait before your case may be heard.  Do not make the mistake of scheduling other matters for later in the morning or even in the early afternoon, and be sure to feed your parking meter with plenty of coins (if you need to step out to feed the meter, just let the clerk know).

3.      Be prepared to resolve the case before the hearing. The court clerk will likely order the litigants out into the hallway to discuss settlement before the hearing starts.  This is a good opportunity for you to gauge how prepared the other side is, but it also provides a last chance to resolve your dispute before it ends up in the hands of a total stranger (the judge).  If you think your case is shaky or you want to cut a deal, use this time to have that conversation.

4.      Always remember your role:

a.      If you are the plaintiff, you need to show liability first, and then prove damages.  For example, if someone rear-ended you and they owe you $2,000 to fix your car, first establish the defendant was the driver and that they were at fault for hitting you, then get into the mechanic’s bills to fix your car.

b.      If you are the defendant, disprove the plaintiff’s facts, provide sound reasons for why you acted as you did, and if applicable, make legal arguments that can get the claim dismissed (statutes of limitations, wrong court, etc.).

c.       Whether you are the plaintiff or the defendant, remember to stick to the facts: if you get emotional or drift off into discussions about your feelings or your opinions on “justice” and “fairness,” you will quickly lose the judge (and likely your case). 

5.      Do not address or talk to the other side during the hearing. Instead, only speak to the judge.  If the judge starts talking, you should immediately stop talking and listen to what the judge has to say.  Don’t try to argue with or talk over the judge and be sure to answer the judge’s questions.  Always be respectful and address the judge as “Your Honor” or “Judge [Last Name of Judge].”

6.      Don’t be afraid to correct the judge if he/she misunderstands the facts.  Judges are human beings and can mishear or misunderstand something as easily as anyone else.  If the judge provides an inaccurate recap of the facts, or asks a question that assumes facts incorrectly, don’t be afraid to correct the mistake.  However, always remain respectful and don’t veer into becoming argumentative. 

7.      If you followed the suggestion from Chapter 4 and have materials to provide to the judge, be sure to provide those before or at the start of the hearing, and reference them during your statements to the court. 

8.      Be sure to let the judge know if you have witnesses, as the judge won’t necessarily know you have a witness without being informed of that person’s presence first.

After both sides have finished arguing, the judge will deem the case “submitted,” which means the hearing is over.  Unfortunately, it is highly unlikely you will get a ruling on the day of the hearing.  Instead, when the hearing ends, the judge will likely tell you that the case will be taken “under submission,” which means the judge will send out a written notice by mail providing the litigants with the court’s opinion.  You should expect to receive the court’s ruling within 10 to 12 days of the hearing. 

In Chapter 6, we will discuss judgments, appeals, and collections.  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.