Preparing for Conciliation / Small Claims Court - Things I wish I knew

Appearing in court--especially for the first time--can intimidate even the most confident person. The only time I had ever been in one was when I applied for my passport, so when I had to appear before a judge in a small claims contest, I only knew the process through Judge Judy, and I didn't think I could trust her as a source. It made me fret. My roommate had run out on our lease, and I stood to lose a lot of money if he didn't honor the agreement. I couldn't find anything online to help me prepare or even ease my nerves.

Coming out of the experience--and having lost--I compiled a list of things that would have been nice to know before hand. Whether you're the plaintiff or the defendant, knowing how small claims court really works (at least in St. Louis County in Minnesota) could save you a lot of stress. These are just a few items I feel would have changed my situation:

1. Conciliation Court Doesn't Mean Anything

The judge explained right before the hearings started that the court doesn't keep any record of what happens or what decision he makes. Whatever is at stake, the responsibility lies with the defendant and the plaintiff to follow through on collecting the claim, and if one party fails to uphold the agreement, the court won't intervene to enforce it.

So think very hard about whether or not suing someone will help you. My judge basically told everyone, "This is just a game. No one really has to pay anything," right before the hearings. I felt like even holding conciliation court was just a scam to get court fees. So ask yourself three questions before you go in:

  • Can the defendant pay?
  • Will the defendant pay?
  • Do I have the means to enforce the judges decision?

The defendant's job doesn't even have that many questions to worry about. Not showing up for the hearing results in an automatic ruling in favor of the plaintiff, but since no one really cares, the only thing to worry about is, "Do I respect this person enough to consider paying up if he makes a good case?"

2. Don't try to sound like a lawyer

I prepared my argument before I went in. I wrote it down, edited it, made sure it made sense, and brought it in with me to read to the judge. My ex-roommate doesn't have a very high intelligence, and struggles with understanding seemingly simple everyday concepts. I thought for sure if I went in there and sounded intelligent, it would help my case.

Not really.

Don't bother with big words or arguments that sound legal. Just state your case simply, the way you'd describe it to a friend.

3. Justice is blind, so don't ask her to read anything

"What?" you ask. "In a country that requires all agreements to be put into writing, wouldn't written evidence be important?"

No. Apparently not. The law isn't like science or history or anything else that requires evidence to support an argument. They don't want to consider all the evidence, and if something is on paper, they automatically rule it out as being "heresay," and therefore not true.

They hold court during business hours on Wednesday. I couldn't bring in my witnesses because they both had full-time jobs. Instead, I collected signed statements; one from my girlfriend supported my claim that my roommate said "The landlord threatened to evict you if I didn't move out," and the statement from my landlord saying "I never threatened to evict anyone, and he said you wanted to cause me trouble." Just before he moved out, it became more and more obvious that my roommate had a different story depending on who he was talking to. If I could bring in proof that he lied about that, I thought, that will discredit anything he might say in his defense.

Unfortunately, judges won't read written evidence, so that didn't work out. Bring witnesses with you if you need them.

4. Perjury isn't a crime.

Afterwards, I read an article written by a lawyer that said not only does no one ever prosecute perjury, but judges expect it when hearing a case. This article went on to say that people tend to be more honest in small claims court, when they don't have a lawyer's advice, and that they often say things that damage their case.

Well, my ex-roommate lied through his teeth, and brought in his girlfriend to lie through her teeth. Judge Judy seems to have a talent for sniffing out liars, but my judge listened to the testimony of a girl with a very obvious tell, and didn't seem to care.

So to recap:

  • The court assumes anything written down is a lie.
  • They also assume anything spoken at the hearing is true.

This didn't go well for me. My roommate's name was missing from the lease due to a clerical error, but verbal contracts are legally binding in Minnesota. Ever try to prove a verbal agreement with no physical evidence? It would have been nice if the judge would have taken thirty seconds to look at the paperwork my ex-roommate filled out to get his name on the lease. But he didn't.

5. The plaintiff is solely responsible for proving his case.

When the judge's ruling showed up in the mail, it came with the comment, "The defendant's version of events was more plausible." Honestly, I still find that statement offensive. I went in there prepared to make a fully honest argument, and he called me a liar.

However, in an innocent-until-proven-guilty system, the defendant has the advantage. If he proves his innocence, he wins. If it comes up that the judge can't make a decision, he still wins. The plaintiff has to go above and beyond to show everyone what's what, and if he can't the ruling automatically favors the defendant.

I'm still offended by the statement, though.

I don't wish a court experience on anyone. They're intimidating, bureaucratic and unjust. The judges don't judge--they make decisions based on rules, something a computer program could do just as easily. But should you find yourself in that situation, consider my experience and use it to your advantage. I wish you the best of luck. (Unless, of course, you've skipped out on paying rent.)

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