Preparing for Trial
What Should I Bring to Court When I Appear for My Trial?
Bring all documentation that helps support your claim. This may include:
- Written contracts
- Canceled checks
- Estimates in writing
- Damaged object(s)
- Other written documents
- Money Orders
Try to bring any original documents. This will serve as evidence for your trial. You may have to provide a copy of the document(s) to the party you are suing, as well as to the Judge. So it is important to bring two copies along with the original of any documents that you intend to bring in as evidence.
Note: It may be useful for you to write down everything you want to tell the Judge before your trial so you do not forget anything. Writing down your story before you go to court helps you to stay focused and to organize your thoughts so that you can present your position clearly.
Yes! A witness can provide essential information and be helpful to your claim or defense. A witness can be:
- Someone who knows something about your claim, or
- Someone with a lot of knowledge or experience with the basis for your claim. (This is called an expert witness.)
It is important for any witnesses to attend the trial in person. If a witness is unable to attend the hearing, he or she should write a statement that contains any important information that the witness wants to say. If possible, this statement should be in affidavit form. To learn more, visit the article on evidence and witnesses here.
Note: Statements made before the court are taken under oath. You and your witnesses must swear to tell the truth. Lying under oath is considered a crime of perjury and criminal proceedings may be brought against the perjurer.
If for some reason, the witness does not want to testify in court or supply a written statement, then you can ask the Small Claims Court Clerk for a subpoena, a court document that orders the witness either to provide a written document to the court (subpoena duces tecum) or attend the hearing. Anyone who is over the age of 18 years and not involved in the case can serve the witness with a subpoena. It is up to you, the Claimant, to arrange the serving of the subpoena. The witness is entitled to receive a $15 witness fee paid by the Claimant. This must be paid at the time the subpoena is served. The subpoena must be served before the date of the trial in order to give the witness time to prepare for the trial. Usually five days or more before the trial is an appropriate amount of time to serve the witness with the subpoena.
An expert witness is someone with expert knowledge on your type of claim. For example, if you have a medical claim, you may want a doctor to be your expert witness. The expert witness may testify at your trial, but you usually have to pay him or her for the time spent to testify. You cannot use a subpoena to force an expert witness to appear in court.
You do not need a lawyer to represent you in Small Claims Court, but you may retain one if you wish. Small Claims Court is designed for you to represent yourself effectively in court without a lawyer. You are permitted to have a friend or relative to appear on your behalf if the court finds that you are unable to adequately represent yourself because you are physically or mentally disabled. If both the Claimant and the Defendant have attorneys, the case may be transferred to a regular civil part of the court.
If a party does not speak English, he or she is entitled to an interpreter. If an interpreter cannot be provided to you at the time of your trial, the case can be postponed until a date when an interpreter is available.
What if I Have a Disability?
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects all individuals with a disability who participate in court activities, including litigants, witnesses, jurors, spectators, traffic violators, conservators, victims, and attorneys. If you are an individual with a disability and you need an accommodation in order to participate in a court proceeding, you are entitled to certain assistance free of charge.
Under the ADA, a person with a disability is one who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity, such as walking, seeing, hearing, learning, breathing or working. Upon request, court administrators can make reasonable modifications to its practices and procedures or provide auxiliary aids and services. The court cannot provide legal counsel or advice, transportation to or from the courthouse or personal devices, such as wheelchairs, hearing aids or glasses.
Each court has an ADA liaison who can help you with your request for accommodation. You can find contact information for the ADA liaison in your court here. If a request for accommodation affects the judge’s handling of the case, such as granting extra time, changing the location of a hearing or allowing video conferencing, you must make your request directly to the judge.
What If My Disability Involves Deafness or Hearing Loss?
Under the ADA, state and local courts, including small claims courts, are required to provide auxiliary aids and services to ensure effective communication with individuals who are deaf or have hearing loss in court proceedings. “Auxiliary aids and services” may include qualified sign-language interpreters, transcription services, captioning, videotext displays, written materials, assistive listening devices and systems, or other methods of making aurally-delivered materials accessible in an effective manner to individuals.
The particular auxiliary aid or service depends on the needs of the individual and is determined on a case-by-case basis. For instance, if you are a person who is deaf and uses sign language, the most effective auxiliary aid or service may be a qualified sign language interpreter trained in legal procedure and terminology.
If you are a person who is deaf or has hearing loss and you do not rely on sign language for communication and if you are able to read, the most effective auxiliary aid or service for you may be the use of transcription services, such as CART. The CART system puts spoken words into real-time text using a qualified CART provider, a stenotype machine, computer and special software. If you are an individual who wears hearing aids or has cochlear implants, the most effective auxiliary aid may be a courtroom with an installed hearing loop or some type of assistive listening system.
Each court has an “ADA liaison” you can contact if you need assistance requesting an accommodation for a disability. You can find contact information for the ADA liaison in your court here.
You can choose to have a Judge or an arbitrator try your Small Claims case. An arbitrator is an experienced attorney who is specially trained to hear and decide Small Claims. Because there are more arbitrators than Judges available to hear cases, an arbitrator will hear your claim more quickly. The hearing before an arbitrator is informal, but the arbitrator applies the same law to your case as a Judge would apply. However it is important to note that unlike the decision made by a Judge after a trial, an arbitrator's decision cannot be appealed. Additionally, cases decided by an arbitrator do not have juries. Whereas, jury trials are available if a Judge tries a case and the Defendant requests it.
This is always encouraged. The Claimant and the Defendant may settle the case before the trial. If both parties come to an agreement before the trial date and the claim has been fully paid then the Small Claims Court Clerk must be notified in writing and no one has to go to court. If the two parties come to an agreement but the claim is not fully paid by the trial date or you need more time to complete the settlement, you must still go to court on the date of trial and request a postponement so you can finish the settlement. You will be given a new date to attend court if the claim is still not settled.
Mediation is a free service that is voluntary and confidential; it involves both parties meeting with a mediator who is trained to deal with disputes. It is a way to settle the case out of court Mediation can result in non-monetary compensation, such as replacement of a broken or lost item. A mediator helps parties resolve their dispute, but, unlike a Judge or an arbitrator, he or she cannot decide the case.
Prepare for mediation like you might for the court case and bring any relevant documents or information. When an agreement is reached between the Claimant and the Defendant they sign a settlement which is enforceable by the court. If no decision is reached the Claimant can proceed to court to have the case heard by a Judge or arbitrator.
Note: If the case is settled through mediation make sure the Small Claims Clerk is notified so that the court case is closed.
To seek free mediation please contact your local Community Dispute Resolution Center, found in the Resources section.
As the Claimant: You must appear in person on the date set by the Court for trial. If you do not appear, the Judge may dismiss your case. When you appear, you may request a postponement (also called an "adjournment") for a legitimate reason (e.g., you need more time to gather documents, your witness is unavailable on this date), but it is up to the Judge to decide whether you will be given a new date to appear. In addition, if you received notice that you are being countersued by the Defendant you may ask for an adjournment to prepare to defend against this suit if the Defendant filed the counterclaim more than 5 days after receiving the Notice of Claim you filed against him or her.
As the Defendant: If you are seeking an adjournment because you cannot attend the trial date, send a trusted person to explain your absence and make sure the reason is legitimate. If you simply do not show up the Judge or arbitrator may find you are in default and decide the case in the Claimant's favor and against you. You can later re-open the case to ask the court to vacate the default judgment. If you have a valid defense and a good reason for missing the first trial date, the court may schedule another trail and vacate the default judgment.
If you have a disability or are a senior citizen and this is the reason why you cannot attend court, please see the Senior Citizen/Disabled section.