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. Small claims courts handle civil matters. They don’t hear criminal, immigration, constitutional, child protection, workers’ compensation, appeals, federal, or probate cases. Here are 6 tips to succeed with your small claims case: 1. Learn about the court processes 2. Prepare your case 3. Prepare your witnesses 4. Practice presenting your case 5. Show the court due respect 6. Be prepared to follow up after the court's judgment
Written by Attorney Eric Hansen.
Updated August 24, 2023
What Is a Small Claims Court?
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 to allow regular people to file certain types of cases without needing to hire a lawyer or understand complex legal theories. The amount of money a court can award in these cases is limited by state law.
Small claims courts handle civil matters — a person or company suing another person or company. These courts don’t hear criminal, immigration, child support, workers’ compensation, real estate, child protection, probate, constitutional, or federal cases. They also don’t handle appeals.
Depending on your state, your local small claims court may go by a different name, such as magistrate court, justice court, general sessions court, or summary procedure court.
What Types of Cases Can You Bring in Small Claims Court?
Each state has its own rules for which cases qualify for small claims court. Generally, these courts commonly handle the following types of cases:
Claims for payment of money owed on unpaid accounts such as medical bills or credit card debt
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
Claims involving defective or incomplete repairs by a contractor or repair person
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, sometimes called district court, circuit court, chancery court, or superior court
How Formal Are Small Claims Court Proceedings?
Proceedings in small claims court are generally less formal than in other courts. The overall rules of procedure and evidence still apply, but judges often relax the technical requirements. Because many of the litigants in small claims court aren’t lawyers, these courts allow some leeway to ensure the process is fair to everyone.
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6 Tips To Prepare Your Small Claims Court Case
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
Before you file a lawsuit, you need to learn as much as you can about the court processes, rules, and procedures that apply to your local small claims court. Most courts follow a fairly universal procedure, but your court may have some rules that are different. Following your court’s specific rules and requirements will help make sure your case isn’t dismissed for procedural reasons.
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 how to deliver, or serve, notice of the lawsuit to the person or company you’re suing. For example, you may need to hire a private process server to deliver the court papers, or you may just need to send the papers using certified mail.
You’ll also want to be sure that your case qualifies to be heard in small claims court and that the statute of limitations hasn’t expired. You can often find the eligibility requirements and information about the statute of limitations on the court’s website, in the court clerk’s office, or a self-help center. If you’re unsure about whether your case is eligible, ask for help or seek legal advice before proceeding.
Tip 2: Prepare Your Case
Next, start preparing your case. Before you file paperwork with the court, gather information and evidence for your legal claim. Get the defendant’s contact information, including 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 proceed with getting a trial date.
You should also be prepared to pay the necessary filing fees or court costs. Keep receipts of these costs. Also, prepare for any counterclaims (claims against you) that the other party may try to argue.
Keep Excellent Records
Your word and memory of the dispute are a start, but documented evidence is best. 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., table of contents, categories, chronological, etc.) that is easy for the judge to review and understand. Make copies that you can hand to the judge or other party if needed, as well as a copy for your own notes. Don’t mark or write on the original documents.
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.
Some states allow you to recover punitive damages if you win your case and the business didn’t comply with the appropriate regulations.
Tip 3: Find and Prepare Your Witnesses
You may or may not have witnesses, depending on 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 and likable and who can provide relevant testimony to help prove your case. If someone isn’t believable, is confrontational, or tries to testify to irrelevant events or facts, they aren’t a good witness.
Ask possible witnesses if they are 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
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. So before you go into the courtroom, it’s good to practice your case.
Before your court date, pay an in-person visit to 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 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.
Be able to answer the five W’s (who, what, when, where, and why). 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. Show up for court early on the hearing date. If you are absent or late, you risk having your case dismissed.
Dress appropriately. While a suit or pantsuit isn’t required, wearing one won’t hurt. If that isn’t your thing, keep it professional and appropriate. 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. 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. In these cases, the judge issues a default judgment. 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 bank 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 the process over again in a different court.
How To Defend Yourself in a Small Claims Case
If you’re the defendant in a small claims case, the previous six tips will also prove helpful to you. As a defendant, you should prepare to present your defense the same way you would present your case if you were a plaintiff.
If the plaintiff’s information is incorrect or the events didn’t happen the way the plaintiff claimed, explain that clearly to the judge. If the damage was actually the plaintiff’s fault, or someone else’s fault, describe what happened concisely and accurately.
Use witnesses or documents that help prove your side of the story, just as if you were the plaintiff.
Also, see if there are any claims you can make against the plaintiff that are related to the facts of the lawsuit. If there are, you may 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.
To maximize your odds of success in small claims court, you should take time to prepare your case, gather evidence, find and screen witnesses, and visit the court to learn from other small claims hearings. Organize your documents and practice your presentation. On the day of the hearing, be respectful, dress professionally, and state your case calmly and concisely. Diligent preparation and accurate presentation are key to winning your small claims case.