Small claims court is a unique setting that is designed to be accessible and understandable for everyone. These courts handle a variety of cases, with disputes limited by how much money is at stake.
Written by Attorney Eric Hansen.
Updated November 2, 2021
“May it please the court, your honor, opposing counsel, ladies and gentlemen of the jury…” You may have heard such a phrase on courtroom procedural TV shows or perhaps if you’ve done your civic duty as a jury member in a courtroom. Unfortunately, your upcoming small claims court case won’t be quite like what you see on television or as strictly rules-based and formal as it is in other courts.
Small claims court is a unique setting that is designed to be accessible and understandable for everyone. These courts handle a variety of cases, and people usually represent themselves when arguing their case to the judge. Some states allow people to hire an attorney to represent them and present their case, while others don’t allow attorneys in the courtroom. In those states, you may only be able to hire an attorney to help you prep your case or collection on a judgment if you win.
This article provides six tips to help you prepare your small claims court case and find a dispute resolution that is fair and reasonable.
What Is Small Claims Court?
Small claims court is a judicial setting designed to handle simple legal disputes that are under a specific dollar amount. This amount varies by state. Larger, more complex cases with higher dollar amounts must be taken to a district court or go through arbitration.
Small claims courts handle civil matters. They don’t hear criminal, immigration, constitutional, child protection, workers’ compensation, appeals, federal, or probate cases. They commonly handle the following types of cases:
Claims for payment
Landlord/tenant disputes (like an eviction or a security deposit issue)
Sales transactions dealing with property, money, or services that weren’t received
Medical expenses for a minor personal injury
Unpaid bills and debts
Disputes over a contractor’s or repair person’s work that was supposed to be done
Overcharges for faulty or improper repairs on a car, electronics, or other personal property
Other disputes that are below the claims limit and don’t involve real estate or significant personal injury. Those types of cases are heard in the next level of the judiciary, usually called district court but sometimes referred to as circuit court or superior court.
The Standard of Proof in Small Claims Court
The standard of proof used in small claims court is called substantial justice. To win, you must prove your case by a “preponderance of the evidence.” This just means that all of the evidence you present and any testimony you or others give at the court hearing shows that it is more likely than not that you should prevail.
This is different from having to prove something “beyond a reasonable doubt,” which is the standard of proof that’s used in criminal cases. Those cases often also have a jury trial and the stakes are much higher. People’s freedom and, in some cases, their lives depend on a criminal case decision. Since that’s more valuable than a disputed repair bill, the standard of proof is also more strict.
Small claims court judges are also able to give more leniency and leeway. They don’t have to strictly follow court procedures and rules of evidence. Their goal is to come to a just and fair verdict. Judges know the litigants in small claims cases aren’t lawyers, so they aren’t likely to toss a case out on a technicality.
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6 Tips if You’re the One Bringing the Case in Small Claims Court
Now that you know a little bit about what small claims courts are and what their standard of proof is, here are six helpful tips to keep in mind as you prepare for your hearing date.
Tip 1: Learn About the Court Processes
If you’re suing someone, you’ll want to be well-prepared and do your research. Before you file a suit, you need to learn as much as you can about the court processes in the relevant state and/or county. Know this, you can be sure to follow the court rules and procedures.
The overall process is generally the same from place to place, but you’ll likely find some procedural variations based on your locale. Learning about your local procedural and evidentiary rules will help make sure your claim is heard in court. If you fail to follow a procedure or you file improper paperwork, the small claims court can dismiss your case.
For example, in some areas, you must send the defendant a demand letter before you file a civil complaint or serve the other party with a lawsuit. There may also be rules about the service process. You may have to personally serve the other party, get a third-party or process server to serve the defendant, or simply serve the other participant by certified mail.
You’ll also want to be sure that your legal claim can be heard in small claims court. To do this, review the eligibility requirements and statute of limitations on the court’s website or check to see if there’s a self-help center. In particular, make sure your case doesn’t exceed the claim amount maximum and is the right type of case for small claims court. If you’re unsure, you should ask for help or legal advice before proceeding.
Tip 2: Thoroughly Prepare Your Case
Next, you’ll want to prepare, prepare, prepare. Before you file paperwork with the court, gather information and evidence for your legal claim. Get the contact information of the defendant, such as their legal name, address, phone number(s), and email address. If it’s a business, you’ll want to check with the secretary of state and find the defendant company’s name, office address, trade name, and who the principal officers of the company are so you can properly serve them. If the court can’t find the defendant, they can’t be served and you won’t be able to get a ruling in your favor, let alone proceed with getting a trial date.
You should also be prepared to pay the necessary filing fees or court costs. Keep receipts and copies of those checks. Also, prepare for any counterclaims that the other party may try to argue. Their side of the story may be very different from yours, so be ready to distinguish and clarify any counterclaims.
Keep excellent records.
Your word and memory of the dispute are a start, but documented evidence is best. Try to keep an organized file of records and documents related to the facts and events of your case. This might include contracts, leases, receipts, invoices, purchase orders, canceled checks, emails, dated photos, before/after pictures, and more. Keep this file orderly and neat and put it in a folder, binder, or document box with a logical filing system (i.e., categories, chronological, etc.) that is easy for the judge to review and understand. Make copies as well.
If you’re suing a business...
If a business has harmed you and you believe it owes you money, you’ll want to do some research on legislation and regulatory requirements for that industry or business. For example, see if the business is required to be licensed, to have any certifications, to provide certain notices to consumers, or to include specific terms in its contracts. You might be able to get punitive damages if you win and the business isn’t following the appropriate regulations closely.
Tip 3: Find and Prepare Your Witnesses
You may or may not have witnesses, depending on the circumstances of your case. If you do have witnesses, speak with them as soon as possible to see if their recollection of events matches yours. Also, find witnesses who are credible, believable, likable, and can provide testimony that is relevant to the case at hand. If someone isn’t believable, is confrontational, or tries to testify to irrelevant events or facts, they aren’t a good witness. Ask if a possible witness is willing to testify on the trial date. If they are reluctant to appear in court, you can ask the court to issue a subpoena. This compels them to appear in court or face legal consequences.
Tip 4: Practice Presenting Your Case
Now you’ll want to practice, practice, practice! Small claims court cases move quickly. Judges in these courts usually have a lot of cases on the docket. You may only get a few minutes to present your case to the judge.
Before your court date, visit the courtroom where your case will be heard. This allows you to observe other proceedings, get a feel for how the judge interacts with the litigants, and see how others present their case. Think about what works well and what doesn’t. This will help you shape a successful argument for your case.
Have a prepared, written story or script, along with questions you’ll want to ask the defendant and any witnesses. Be concise. Try to stick to the point and don’t wander too far from the important details of the case. Think of the five Ws (who, what, when, where, and why, along with how). Mention important facts like names, dates, amounts of money, etc.
Practice presenting your case to a friend or family member and ask for feedback. You could also practice in front of a mirror or record yourself presenting your case so you can critique and perfect your delivery. Be clear and persuasive. If something is confusing or unconvincing, consider changing that portion of your presentation.
Tip 5: Show the Court Due Respect
To help win your small claims court case, it is best to be respectful and make a good impression with the judge. You’ll want to show up for court early on the hearing date — early enough so you’re not rushed. This way, you’ll have time to make it through traffic, get through courthouse security, use the restroom, have a drink of water, and calm your nerves before your case is heard. If you are absent or late, you risk having your case dismissed.
Dress for the day at hand. While a suit or pantsuit isn’t required, wearing one won’t hurt. If that isn’t your thing, keep it professional and appropriate. You’ll want to wear clean, pressed slacks and a collared shirt or a nice dress. Dress like you’re going to a job interview. Looking the part can be important.
Be respectful to the judge, the court clerk, and the other parties involved. Address the judge as “Your Honor.” Answer questions with “Yes, sir” or “No, ma'am” as appropriate. Don’t interrupt or be confrontational with the judge, although they may interrupt you to keep things moving. Avoid name-calling, being disrespectful, or addressing your opponent directly. Make your statements, questions, and responses directly to the judge and the court in a calm, clear manner.
Be ready to go when your case is called on the docket. Again, small claims cases move quickly. You’ll want to have everything lined up and ready ahead of time (testimonies, documents, witnesses, witness statements, etc.). Be sure to hit all the relevant arguments and facts in your case and give the judge all the information necessary to decide in your favor.
Tip 6: Be Prepared To Follow Up After the Court’s Judgment
Last, but not least, follow up after the court issues a judgment. If you win, the judge will issue a court order called a money judgment, which requires the other party to pay you. Many cases are won simply because the other party didn’t show for the court date. This is called a default judgment. And it’s why you shouldn’t expect the losing party to voluntarily pay you on the spot. You may have to take further action to actually get the losing party to pay you.
After the small claims judgment, follow up with the court clerk. Get a copy of the court order and ask the other party to pay. They usually have 30 days to comply and pay, depending on state law. If the losing party doesn’t voluntarily pay, you may have to try to get a wage garnishment order or levy to take money from their bank accounts. You can also try to get a lien on their property.
Alternatively, if you lose your small claims court case, you may or may not be able to appeal or contest the court judgment. Small claims appeals vary from state to state. If your state allows appeals, you’ll have to start back at step one.
If You’re Defending Yourself in a Small Claims Case…
If you’re the defendant in a small claims case, the previous six steps will also prove helpful to you. You’ll need to prove your case by a preponderance of the evidence. Make it clear to the judge that you weren’t at fault, the events didn’t actually happen the way the plaintiff stated, or it was actually the plaintiff’s fault, whatever’s true in your situation. Use witnesses and documents to help prove your side of the story.
Also, see if there are any claims you can make against the plaintiff or a third party that is related to the facts of the lawsuit. If there is, you’ll want to file a counterclaim. A counterclaim for damages could offset any money you owe or potentially get you a money judgment. Importantly, when the court date rolls around, show up. If you don't, the judge will likely issue a default judgment against you and you’ll lose your right to appeal the decision if your state allows appeals.
If you’re facing a dispute with a neighbor, landlord, or repair person, you may want to sue them in small claims court. These courts are designed for regular people to be able to bring cases for small amounts of money without needing a lawyer or to know all the technicalities of a trial. Still, you need to understand the basic court processes in your area and make sure you follow all necessary rules when it comes time to file your claim.
Take time to prepare your case, gather evidence, find and screen witnesses, and visit the court to learn from other small claims hearings. Remember that you don’t have to convince the judge beyond a reasonable doubt, but you need to present enough evidence and information to prove your case by a preponderance of the evidence. How you present your case and how you prepare can make all the difference. Be respectful, dress professionally, and calmly and concisely state your case for the judge.