Small Claims Court Procedure
What to expect and how to act in small claims court.
Small claims courts are specifically designed to expedite and simplify claims not exceeding a relatively small amount (typically under $5,000.00). However, even though you may not need a lawyer to bring your noisy neighbor or lousy dry cleaner to court, you may need advice on how to proceed, how to act and what to expect if you want to succeed.
Before you run to the courthouse to file suit, you should first seek resolution by sending a certified letter to you adversary outlining your complaints and demands. Make sure, however that the letter is not simply a string of insults, because the judge may eventually read it. If this doesn't solve the dispute, you may then file your claim in the county where your adversary lives, or if it is a business, the county in which it is located. A filing fee, usually under $100.00, will also be required. Note that you may be able to recover this fee should the Judge rule in your favor.
After you have filed your claim, which will include names, addresses, a brief statement of the facts, and the amount owed, the other party will be served with notice of the suit. At this point, he or she will file and serve you with a response to the complaint and any counterclaims against you. Sometimes, however, the other party may simply ignore the complaint and fail to answer or to appear before the court. If this happens, you may be entitled to a default judgement without allowing the other party to present his or her side of the dispute.
Before you go to court, organize your thoughts and collect your evidence (receipts, cancelled checks, photos, letters, etc.) If you have witnesses you wish to rely on, arrange to have them in court with you and prepare written questions you need to ask them ahead of time. Should you have trouble getting your witnesses to cooperate, and you have their names and addresses, you can have the court subpoena them to make them appear or to make them produce documents.
The way you conduct yourself the day of the hearing can also affect your chances of success. Dress appropriately and show respect. When the judge directs, simply and briefly present your facts and evidence. Directly answer any questions the judge may have and never interrupt the judge while he or she is speaking. Most importantly, stick to the facts, stay calm, and be polite.
When the other party gets a turn, don't argue. Simply ask questions when directed to do so by the judge that will counter their arguments. After hearing both sides, the judge may decide your case on the spot, or may let you know when to expect a decision. Regardless of how the judge rules, do not express your distaste or flaunt your victory.
If you win, be prepared for the hard part - collecting on your judgment. After you file it with the court, you may collect by garnishing the person's checking account or paycheck, filing a lien on the person's house, or seizing cars or other assets. Unfortunately, many times the other party may be unemployed or insolvent which can ultimately leave you with a worthless judgement.