How to Represent Yourself in Small Claims Court
If you are considering suing someone but the amount is not high enough to justify hiring an attorney, filing a lawsuit in small claims court is a good option. Small claims court, or conciliation court, allows people to represent themselves under less formal rules of evidence and procedure. The court settles disputes of less than $7,500, unless your case involves a “consumer credit transaction,” which has a $4,000 limit. A consumer credit transaction is when you’re loaned money by a seller or business to buy something for personal, family or household use, and not for a commercial, agricultural or business purpose. Financing a washer or dryer for your home is a good example.
Even if your claim is over the limit, however, you may still want to file in conciliation court for $7,500—this may still be easier than filing in district court. On the other hand, you might consider finding an attorney for complex or expensive claims, even if they are under the limit and you file in small claims court. An attorney can help you organize and articulate your arguments in the statement of claims and summons (described below), and can represent you in the actual hearing before the judge.
How to file a claim in small claims court
First, you have to locate the correct district court. The lawsuit should be filed in the district court for the county where the defendant lives, where checks were written (if the case involves bad checks), where real property or land is located (if the case is a landlord/tenant dispute), or where the corporation has its business or branch office (if suing a corporation).
To begin the lawsuit, you will file a complaint by filling out a form called the “Statement of Claims and Summons.” You will need a telephone number where you can be contacted during the day, the defendant’s name and address, the amount of money (or a list of property) you want the defendant to give to you, and the reasons why this money or property should be yours. When completing the last section, write in a clear and organized fashion that tells your story but doesn’t confuse the reader with unnecessary details.
At the time of filing, you will have to pay filing fees. These fees range between $40 and $80 dollars, depending on the county in which you file. In Hennepin County, the fee is $70.00. Usually, if you win your case, the other party will have to pay your filing fee, and you will get your $70.00 back on top of whatever other damages you are awarded.
Once this is done, the court clerk will “serve” the other party by mailing a copy of the complaint to the defendant. It’s important to make sure you have the defendant’s correct address, because your case cannot proceed unless the defendant is aware of the complaint against them.
What to do if being sued in small claims court
If you receive a complaint and summons, you have a few options. First, you can admit the charges against you and agree to pay what you owe. Alternatively you can try to settle with the other party by negotiating a payment that is acceptable to both of you. In either case, you should put the agreement in writing and notify the court clerk.
If you want to fight the case, you can show up in court on the scheduled date and present your case in front of the judge. If you think that you have been harmed, you can file a counterclaim that will be resolved at the same time. As with a regularly claim, you will have to pay the filing fee.
If you fail to show up for the hearing, you default and the other side wins automatically, as long as they can show that you received the complaint and summons. If you can’t make the court date, you can make a written request for a continuance.
Tips for Representing Yourself in Court
Effectively representing yourself mostly boils down to preparation and common sense. Here are a few tips to help.
Get there on time
Again, if you don’t show up to your court hearing, you default and the other party wins. Make sure that you either clear your schedule for your court date, or ask for a continuance. On the day of the hearing, make sure you know where the courthouse is and leave yourself plenty of time to get there and find parking. It can also take time to get through screenings or to find and get to the courtroom.
Bring the relevant information
You should keep a file with every document you or the other side has filed with the court, and bring that file with you on the day of your hearing. Also, bring all evidence you have gathered that helps prove your case—pictures, written agreements, emails, and whatever else can be used to show that your story is true. Bring the original and 2 copies: one for yourself, one for the opposition, and the original for the judge.
Know what you are going to say
Before the day of the hearing, take some time to organize your argument. Think about all the facts you want the court to know, then practice telling your story in a clear fashion that highlights all of those facts. Going over your argument with a friend or even out loud by yourself will make it easier to present it to a judge. Bringing an outline to look at during the hearing may also be a good idea. Keep in mind that it doesn’t matter how right you are if your story isn’t communicated to the judge.
Use common sense
The court, even for less formal proceedings, requires proper conduct. Dress nicely, be respectful to the judge and the opposition, and leave the kids at home if at all possible. You don’t want to do anything that would make a bad impression on the person deciding your case. In short, use common sense.
Conciliation court can be a good option for small claims that don’t justify hiring an attorney. The process is straightforward and is aimed at providing a simple and accessible legal forum. Representing yourself is also straightforward, as long as you are prepared. Telling your story in a clear, organized manner will give you your best shot at success.