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Representing Yourself in Small Claims Court

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This short article is about what to expect, and how to prepare for small claims court. The money limits and rules for small claims court vary. Here is a link with a summary for all states:

Small claims describe the courts where money disputes are settled by a judge or a commissioner. A commissioner is a lawyer, or someone else with the right experience and education. While not officially a judge, a commissioner can perform the role of a judge in certain limited situations.

The reasons to go to small claims court include disputes over contracts, damages, wages, loans not repaid, and other reasons. When the amount of money disputed is at or near the limit of the small claims court, it makes sense to go to small claims court.

In small claims court, you must represent yourself because you cannot hire a lawyer to represent you. (But you can talk to a lawyer before you go to small claims court.) Representing yourself is not difficult, as long as you take the time to prepare yourself and organize the evidence for your case.

Your success in small claims court depends on luck, the strength of your case, your attitude, your evidence, and your preparation. Being prepared gives you confidence. The first thing to remember is that you should make at least two copies of everything you will present as evidence.

You must share copies of any written or photographic evidence that you want the judge to see, with the other party. The bailiff is the person who hands evidence to the judge. The bailiff is usually a gun-wearing deputy, who maintains order in the court. When the judge directs them to, the bailiff takes what you hand to them, and brings it to the judge.

In theory, you could show your one copy of your evidence to the other party, and then ask for it back. This does not always work smoothly. It's best to have extra copies for both the judge, and the other party to hold. You should be holding your copy while in court, too.

It is worthwhile to learn the laws (statutes) that apply to your case. If you are suing, make sure to file the lawsuit in the right county. The location is known as the venue. Usually, you must sue in the same county where the dispute took place. Have everything organized, and ready to read and hand out.

When starting a lawsuit, make sure everyone is properly served. You cannot serve anyone yourself, so hire a professional process server or a sheriff to separately serve everyone you are suing. Each person or entity you are suing needs to be served with a separate set of legal papers. If you are suing a company, find the agent for service of process.

If you need witnesses or paper records, you can get them by first getting permission from the court. By filling out the proper paperwork and having the right people served, you can subpoena paperwork, records, and people as witnesses you might need to prove your case.

As you would expect, courts are security-minded and do not allow distractions. Pretend you are at an airport. No knives or scissors, no cameras, no food or drink, and prepare for delays.

Your case might be called right away, but more likely you will have to wait 20 to 70 minutes to get your case heard. You may have to show up at court at 9 AM, but won't get heard until 10 AM. Show up early so you can go to the bathroom before the start time. Bring a magazine or paperback book to read if needed, as you are not allowed to talk while waiting.

Dress neatly, be comfortable, and stay polite even if the other party is not. Sometimes the judge seems to decide cases as if they have seen other evidence nobody else has seen.

If you win, you cannot appeal the decision. You can start the tedious process of enforcement of your judgment or find a judgment enforcer.

If you lose, you can try to appeal the judgment, which is basically a new trial. In some states if you lose and want to appeal, you must first buy a bond to insure you will pay if you lose the appeal.


Mark D. Shapiro -

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