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Preparing For Your Day in Small Claims Court

You can learn a lot from watching old episodes of "Judge Judy" and "Judge Joe Brown" to prepare for your day in Small Claims Court, but I wouldn't solely rely on reality TV.


Prepare Your Case in Great Detail


If you're the Plaintiff, you need to be able to tell the judge what happened and why you are entitled to damages.


This will require you to know the facts of your case, have your documents ready, and either have witness statements or have witnesses with you in court. Do not leave anything up to chance. In California, a Small Claims suit can seek up to $10,000; that is a large amount and you must take great care to prepare your position to obtain that judgement by proving by a preponderance of the evidence (it's more likely than not that you've been wronged) that you deserve to win.


Prove Your Damages


If you are seeking monetary damages, you must be able to show you incurred the loss. For example, if you claim you are owed the amount of a desk that the Defendant destroyed, show either a receipt for the desk or the price of comparable desks. Very rarely will the judge just take your word that the amount of an item is what it is worth.


Practice Your Presentation Before You Get Before A Judge

Write out, or have your attorney write out, a concise statement as to how you were wronged and why you deserve to be compensated for it.


I find most cases are like an iceberg. There is much more going on between the parties below the basics of the dispute, but use your best judgement if the judge needs to know what lies beneath. For example, if you are arguing a basic contract dispute where you paid money but never received the services, you don't need to tell the judge how angry your spouse got at you for hiring the server in the first place. Stay on topic and don't drudge up issues you've had with your opponent in the past unless they are absolutely relevant to your case now.


I recommend videotaping yourself practicing your presentation or giving it in front of your most critical friends and family. It's natural to be nervous when you get to court, but knowing the facts of your case by heart should help you if you get flustered.


Have 3 Copies of Everything


If your court case is in person, have 3 copies of each piece of your evidence - one for you, one for your opponent and one for the judge.


Be On Time To Court


It is better to wait at the courthouse for 2 hours than to be 2 minutes late for court.


Dress Professionally

You needn't wear a suit, but clean business casual clothes will show the court you respect the process and are taking the matter seriously.


Do Not Talk To Your Opponent In Court


If you've ever watched "Judge Judy" you've heard her say a thousand time "Talk to me, not him!" You are not in court to discuss anything with your opponent, you're in court because you already tried that and the two of you couldn't get anywhere so you brought your matter to the court to decide.


Only address the judge, only answer the judge's questions. If your opponent addresses you, just ignore them. If your opponent says something you feel you need to address, ask the judge if you may address it.


Speaking Off The Cuff


If you think you've done all you can to prove your case, do not go off topic from your planned presentation just because there might be a lull in the proceedings or you think it's going to be over too quickly - that could mean you're winning! Stick to your plan and only if you are sure your ship is sinking, throw out a hail Mary.


Last Chance to Talk


Toward the end of the proceedings the judge will ask each party if there is anything else they would like to add. This is your opportunity to tell the judge why you should clearly prevail in the matter. Keep it short and do not attack your opponent. Remember the goal is to win your case by playing by the court's rules - so you need to support a win with the law. Tell the court why the law says you win.


If This Is Too Much Work For You


The law is complicated. If you feel it would be cost-effective to do so, considering the size of your claim and the kinds of issues involved, you are allowed to consult with an attorney before or after filing your claim. You can’t have the attorney represent you in Small Claims Court, nor are their fees recoverable as court costs or damages, but if you need assistance preparing your case, it is your right to consult with an attorney.


If You Lose


There are no guarantees in court, so even if you think you have the most rock solid case, be prepared to lose.


If you are the Defendant and get a judgement against you, you may file an appeal. It will be a completely new trial and, if either party choses, they may hire an attorney to represent them at the new trial.


Beware, if you really don't have a legal leg to stand on, the court could sanction you for bringing a frivolous appeal. So, if you don't prevail in court, do not take it personally, and try to understand why the judge ruled in the other party's favor.


Remember, no one ever thinks they're the bad guy.




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