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7 Steps to Preparing Your Case in Small Claims Court
Small claims courts are designed to be accessible to the average person, usually without the need for a lawyer. Dealing with smaller amounts, and being limited in the types of judgments it can make, a small claims court is less formal and has simpler procedures than a regular civil lawsuit. The actual name, structure, rules, and procedures of the small claims court will vary depending on your jurisdiction. Some courts have small claims divisions, some small claims courts are independent of other courts, and in some places small claims are handled in a separate "stream" within the normal civil courts. Regardless of the procedural details, the following steps set out a general approach you can follow in preparing your case.
1. Get the Facts
The first step in any case is to collect all your facts, and this applies whether you are suing or defending. This means gathering all documents relating to your case, talking to witnesses, and noting down names, dates, places, and events. In some cases, such as suing for an unpaid invoice, this will be relatively simple. Other situations, like disputes about the meaning of a contract, or claiming compensation for property damage or personal injury, will be more complicated. Once you have the basic facts, consider searching on the web about the people, companies, and places involved in your case. In certain cases, such as disputes about land or property, or if a corporation is involved, additional searches from official registration systems may be needed. During these searches, you may find additional information which will be helpful for your case or you might discover weaknesses in the other side's case. At the very least you should verify the proper names and addresses of the people or companies involved, so that legal documents can be validly delivered to them. If your case has a lot of details, a good way to organize the information is to make a timeline and a list of the characters involved.
Small Claims Court Guides
2. Learn the Procedure
There's no way around this. You have to find and read the rules of court and learn about the forms which apply to the small claims court in your jurisdiction. The actual rules can vary a lot in how user-friendly they are, but generally they should be manageable since the process is intended to be easier and faster than normal litigation. Many small claims courts will have guides or web pages available in plain language to help you figure out the procedures. After reviewing this information, you should have an idea of how the process works, what forms you need to fill out and file, and what deadlines you have to watch for.
3. Look Up the Law
If you are suing, you will generally have to prove that the other side is liable to pay you for the damage you suffered. You will also have to show how you arrived at the dollar amount you're claiming. If you are defending, you will need to give reasons why you should not have to pay, or that the amount is wrong. To know what you have prove or disprove, you should at least read up on the basics of the law that applies to your case. A lot of information is available on the web and Wikipedia, but you have to be careful that what you find actually applies to your jurisdiction and that it's up to date. Laws change frequently, and can vary considerably between jurisdictions. To get more detailed and authoritative information, go to the library and look for textbooks about the area of law involved. Access to a law school library would be best, but a large public library would probably have a selection of the most common law books as well.
General Law Guides
4. Evaluate Your Case
Now that you have the facts, the procedure, and the law, you can get an idea about whether you actually have a reasonable argument, and whether you can prove the elements of a claim or defence. Does the dollar amount fall into the amount allowed in small claims court? Are both parties within the court's geographical area? Have any deadlines or limitation periods expired? Has each side complied with any regulations specific to the dispute or their business? Do you need to find additional evidence or witnesses to prove your version of the story? If your case has weaknesses, you might consider other alternatives, such as trying to negotiate a settlement, or you might find that it's not worth the risk of starting a claim at all. Some types of matters may have other dispute-resolution processes available, such as mediation or arbitration programs specific to a particular industry, or government agencies that can help you enforce your rights in a particular field with less effort than small claims court.
5. Do the Paperwork
Fill out the forms and prepare the claim, defence, or other document as required by the rules. If you can fill out the forms on your computer or attach additional pages that you can prepare in a word processor, do so. If the court rules require you to include your supporting documents at this point, make sure your photocopies or printouts are good quality and organized in a logical way. The documents you file with the court will be the judge's first impression of your case, so make them clean, clear, and organized. Your local small claims court rules may have specific requirements about how a claim or defence should be written and organized, so write your story within those rules. If you made a timeline earlier, this will help you write out the claim or defence in a logical way, and will also help with your presentation at trial. Deliver and file the documents as required by the rules.
6. Go Through the Procedure
At this point, a lot of the procedures vary significantly among jurisdictions. In some jurisdictions, the case will proceed relatively quickly to a trial. In others, there will be a mandatory settlement conference or pre-trial meeting with the judge. There may be an option to have a mediation session. If you attend at such a meeting, you should be prepared to present a summary of your case, to discuss your position about settling the matter, and there may be additional forms that need to be filed for this purpose. If the case continues to trial, watch for any deadlines relating to the trial itself, such as filing additional documents or arranging witnesses. Some courts may require you to formally request a trial, and may allow the court to throw out the case if there is too much delay.
7. Present Your Case
At trial, you have to present your case. If you have been organized with your documents and facts up to this point, then it will be easier to prepare. Again, the rules dealing with trial procedure will vary by jurisdiction, and may have specific provisions about the order in which evidence is presented, how witnesses are questioned, what evidence is allowed, and how arguments are made. The main point is to be clear, concise, and set out the story for the judge. Dress appropriately. Keep your emotions in check. If you are organized, have familiarized yourself with the procedure, know your facts, and have at least a basic understanding of the relevant law, then you will make a much more favourable impression on the judge than an unprepared and disorganized person. Make it easy for the judge to follow your story and your argument. If you have the time, a few weeks before your trial visit the court a couple of times and watch how the judges and court staff work through the cases, what they look for, and the mistakes people make.
Going to Court
Have you ever represented yourself in court?
Once the trial is over, it's up to the judge to make a decision. It may be in your favour, or it may not, but if you did your homework, then at least you had the opportunity to put your best foot forward. If you are not satisfied with the decision, it may be possible to appeal to a higher level of court, although some small claims courts do not allow appeals. Even if an appeal or review of the decision is possible, the expense may not be worth it. If you get a judgment in your favour, then you will have to check the court rules again to find out how you can enforce it. The searches about the opposing side that you did early on could now be useful in locating assets that you might be able to garnish or seize.
(This article is for general information only and is not legal advice. Always consult a properly qualified lawyer for any legal advice.)
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