Small claims court is often referred to as the “peoples’ court” because it’s an informal court where individuals represent themselves, although some states (not most) allow attorneys in small claims court. This article explains how to prepare for your small claims trial and how the trial will work when a debt collector has sued you in that court. Please note, this article is not intended to provide legal advice.
You are reading the third part of our article: Being Sued. If you did not read the first part, Being Sued, we recommend you read it before continuing.
Spend time before the day of your trial, thinking about how you will defend yourself -- what you will say to the judge and the specific evidence you will present to support your argument. To do that, write down your key points and then think about the documentation you have to support each point. Although the documentation you need will depend on what you’ve been sued for, it might include things like contracts, correspondence, receipts, bank records, and so on. It’s also possible that you may want to ask one or more individuals with knowledge of your situation to testify on your behalf in the courtroom as witnesses for the defense, although witnesses are not common in small claims court. Make copies of all of the evidence you plan to present. You will give the judge one set and you’ll keep the other.
Organize your information chronologically so that when it’s your time to present your case in small claims court, you’ll be able to tell a story that the judge can follow easily and that will make logical sense. Keep your comments as brief as possible without leaving out any key facts.
Tip: It’s a good idea to get a folder or three-ring binder to organize your documents in. Make an extra set of copies, so you have one for yourself and one to give to the judge.
Try to get plenty of sleep the night before you go to small claims court so you will feel rested and can think clearly. Like most people, you will probably feel a little nervous on the day of your trial, so leave yourself plenty of time to get to the courthouse and to park. Not only will you avoid the added stress of rushing to get to court, but also you will avoid the risk of not being on time for your trial. If you are not in the courtroom when your case is called, the judge will award the plaintiff a default judgment against you and you’ll be legally obligated to pay the amount of the judgment.
Tip: Make sure that you don’t bring anything in your purse or wallet that can delay your ability to get through the security checkpoint that most court buildings now use. Find out whether you can bring your cell phone in to the courtroom. If not, be sure to leave it at home or in a safe place. Bring plenty of quarters if you will need them for parking meters.
When you get into the courtroom take a seat. If there is another trial going on when, sit quietly, observe what is going on and wait until your name is called.
When it’s time for your trial, your name will be called and you’ll be asked to take a seat at a table in front of the judge. The debt collector will sit to your side at another table. During the trial, the debt collector will be formally known as the plaintiff and you will be known as the defendant.
The judge will review courtroom procedures and guidelines with both of you and you’ll each be sworn in, which means you’ll take an oath promising to tell the truth. Always stand when you speak to the judge and call the judge “Your Honor”.
The trial will begin with both sides making opening statements. As the plaintiff, the debt collector will speak first. The opening statement is your opportunity to present an overview of your case to the judge, to back up your key points with the evidence that you have pulled together, and to tell the judge what you intend to prove during the trial -- you do not owe the debt the debt collector wants you to pay, the amount of money the debt collector wants you to pay is too much, the statute of limitations on the debt has run out, and so on.
Tip: When the debt collector makes his opening statement listen carefully to what he says because when it’s your turn to speak you may want to modify your comments somewhat to respond to some of what the debt collector said.
After the opening statements, you and the debt collector will have an opportunity to question one another (and your witnesses if there are any) about the information you each presented during those statements. This is your chance to poke holes in any statements that the debt collector may have made that you do not agree with or know to be false. The debt collector will try to do the same.
Tip: It’s important to make a good impression on the judge, so when you are questioned by the debt collector, be polite, even if you don’t like a question. Don’t be argumentative and avoid sarcasm.
During the trial, the judge may ask you and the debt collector questions in order to clarify points you have made and to get a better understanding of the facts and issues involved. Also, if you are unsure at any point about what to do, ask the judge. It’s perfectly okay in small claims court.
Warning! When you answer a question, don’t elaborate on your answer by offering additional facts. If you do, you may say something that could harm your case.
After the questioning is over, you and the debt collector will each have an opportunity make final statements to the judge. This is your chance to summarize your case, highlight any weaknesses in the defendant’s case, and restate what you are asking for from the court.
The judge may announce his verdict while you are in court or you may learn the outcome of the trial at a later date.