Written by attorney Mark Christopher Wolfe

Tips for Presenting Your Case in Small Claims Court

Tips for Effectively Presenting Your Case in Small Claims Court When preparing for trial you should get together all papers, receipts, bills, sale tickets, estimates, photographs, etc. related to your claim. You should also write down important facts and details of the case to assist you in telling why the Defendant owes you money. This is important because at trial you may be nervous and forget to tell the Judge an important fact or detail about your case. If you have an outline or notes you can use that to make sure the Judge knows all the facts needed for resolution of your claim. You can also bring witnesses to testify. If your case centers around an oral agreement and is not supported by a written agreement, you may want to bring witnesses who heard the oral agreement to Court so that they can verify the agreement. If you think a witness will not voluntarily appear, you can ask the Court to issue a subpoena requiring the witness to be present for trial. If you want a subpoena issued you will need to let the Clerk know at least two weeks before trial and you will need to pay an issuance fee for the subpoena. On the day of your trial it is very important that you are on time! If for some reason you are running late or have an emergency on the day of trial, notify the court as soon as possible so that they may pass the information onto the Judge and other party. If you fail to show-up for your trial the Judge can dismiss your case. If you know in advance that you will not be able to be in Court on your trial date, you should notify the Clerk and discuss the procedure for re-scheduling your trial date. It probably would be best to write the Clerk to ask for a continuance and send a copy of your request to the other party. The trial of a case in Small Claims court is an informal hearing before the Judge, there is no jury. When the case is called for trial the parties will present themselves before the Court. The Judge will have all the parties and witnesses take an oath to testify truthfully and then the case will begin. The Plaintiff goes first and presents his or her evidence and calls any necessary witnesses. If you have a written statement from someone that you wish to present to the Judge, make sure the statement has been signed and notarized. Once the Plaintiff has finished, the Defendant will then be allowed to present his or her evidence and call witnesses. In any civil lawsuit the plaintiff carries the burden of proof. This means you must present evidence that is more credible than the evidence presented by the Defendant. The use of photographs and diagrams is allowed and may be very helpful in presenting your case. Also, when telling the Judge about your case identify people by name. Do not argue with the Defendant or witnesses. If the Defendant testifies, you have the right to ask him or her questions when they have finished. This is known as cross-examination. Many times the judge will not allow cross examination in Small Claims Court. This is because many times people find it difficult to ask questions without commenting or debating the witness' answer. When presenting your case, you have to present only evidence that is related to the allegations in the Statement of Claim. After hearing the evidence from both sides, the Judge will make a decision. In many cases the Judge will take the case under submission and make a decision after reviewing the facts and the applicable law. If the Judge takes the case under submission, you will be notified by mail of the decision. If either party is not satisfied with the Judges ruling there is usually a process that can be followed to file an appeal Usually this must be done within a certain number of days of the decision and the party filing an appeal must pay a fee. The clerk's office generally has a Notice of Appeal form. If after the time for filing an appeal has expired without an appeal being filed, then the judgment becomes final. If the Judge has awarded you money the Defendant should pay the judgement amount into Court plus costs. (Assuming an Appeal has not been filed.) If the Defendant does not pay the Judgment then it is up to you, not the Court, to try and collect on that judgment. There are two ways to collect a judgement. The first is known as Execution on the Judgment. This requires a Court order authorizing the Sheriff to take property of the Defendant and sell it to satisfy the judgment amount. The other method to collect on a judgment is know as Garnishment. This requires a Court order instructing the Defendant's employer to withhold a certain amount of the Defendant's wages each pay period and send that money to court. Both these collection methods require additional filing fees and forms can be obtained form the clerk's office. Remember, while the clerk's office can provide you with the various forms for your case, they can not provide you with any legal advice. Ten Pointers to Remember: 1. Be on time. 2. Be organized: Have your presentation ready and your exhibits or diagrams available. 3. Practice your presentation. 4. Dress appropriately. 5. Behave appropriately. Be courteous to the Judge and Court personnel as well as the other party. 6. Have your favorable witnesses in Court with you. If a witness can not be present at trial, at least bring an sworn statement from them. The Judge may or may not allow the sworn statement into evidence but at least you'll have something that indicates you have a favorable witness. 7. Do not interrupt the Judge or the other party. Court proceedings have a protocol and procedure. The Judge will let you know when it is your time to speak. 8. Listen to the other Parties argument closely and be prepared to offer counter-points or responses when it is your turn to speak. 9. Think before you speak! Nothing will get under the Judge's skin more than outrageous and emotional commentary. Before you call your opponent a "lying, good for nothin', sorry rotten SOB!" take a deep breath and resist the urge. 10. Be reasonable in your assessment of the situation. If you opponent has made a good point on a minor issue or fact, don't be afraid to admit it.

Additional resources provided by the author

Alabama residents can order a free copy of Small Claims Court: A User's Guide from our office or download from our web site.

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