Winning in small claims court isn’t always about whether you’re right. The way you present your case — and yourself — in court can also be a factor in determining whether or not you walk out the door with the winner’s ticket.
Remember that substantial justice is the goal of your suit
If you want to win in court, remember that the standard of proof in small claims court is “substantial justice.” This means you don’t have to be Perry Mason and you don’t have to take a cram course on trial techniques.
It means that you have to be prepared and ready to present your case in an organized manner. It also means that the court can give you some leeway and ignore the strict application of the procedural law in the interest of reaching a just result.
Create the right message for small claims
Going to court gives you the chance to tell a story. And, to hold people’s attention and make them relate to it, a story must have a relatable message. So, before you go to court, compose the message you want to present.
Coming in without thinking about what you want to prove and how you’re going to prove it won’t help you, and in fact can guarantee you a loss in some cases.
Sometimes the person who’s best prepared wins. That isn’t necessarily the person with the best set of facts or the one with the law on his side.
Be prepared to appeal your small claims suit
Never assume, before going to court, that you’re going to win. Prepare your case before you start assuming that you may not win and have to appeal. This doesn’t mean going in with a defeatist attitude, but it means being prepared with your case and anticipating the defendant’s response. This may mean:
Having the judge hear your case and not a non-judge.
Making a record so you have information to review in an appeal.
Organizing your evidence so you can present it in a logical manner, so that an appellate court reviewing what went on can understand what you wanted to prove and how you tried to prove it.
Choose the right location for your suit
Location is as important in small claims court as it is in buying real estate. Finding out where to file your case and where it should be heard is an important part of giving yourself a head start in court. Bringing your case in the wrong court or the wrong county leads to an immediate dismissal.
Locating the correct court means checking the small claims rules of your local courthouse first and making sure you have the type of case it can hear. It also means you’ve located the defendant and have made sure your local court has jurisdiction over him.
Review legislation for your suit
If you’re suing a business or you are a business bringing a lawsuit, check and see if there’s any legislation that regulates that business.
Legislation may require the business to be licensed or to have certain terms in contracts, and if the business you’re suing doesn’t, you may have an automatic win on your hands. Legislation may also give you the right to ask for punitive damages if you prove your case.
Treat the small claims clerk kindly
The clerk is there to help you, and he’ll go further for you if you treat him as your friend and not your enemy.
The clerk can save you a lot of headaches by directing you to forms, making sure you’re in the right place, finding resources to assist you in preparing your case, and telling you of mistakes in your forms before the judge sees them and tosses your case out of court.
Make lists for your suit
Lists can be a big help when you need to organize information logically and ensure that you don’t leave out any important details. Make lists for all of the following:
The events that happened that convinced you to go to small claims court.
The evidence you need to win your case, including witnesses and documents.
What you want to prove at trial, including your desired outcome.
Questions you want to ask the defendant and witnesses.
Look good in small claims court
You only have one chance to make a first impression on the clerk and on the judge. This means don’t have a confrontational attitude with everyone — or anyone. It means to dress for court like it’s an important event for you.
This means no sneakers, no pants hanging down around your knees, and if you’re female, no excessive cleavage. Comb your hair and get enough sleep the night before court so you sound coherent.
How you look and act can convince the judge that you’re the more serious and believable person when the sole issue in the case is credibility.
Investigate the facts for your suit
Part of preparation is investigating the various aspects of the case. The only person who is going to do this for your case is you, so don’t do it halfway. Spend time and get all the information you need, because you won’t get a second chance in most cases.
Make sure you investigate:
Who is the proper defendant.
All the applicable laws that apply to the facts of the case or to the business you’re suing.
How to hire an expert or how to get copies of documents currently in the hands of third parties.
Establish a dollar amount for your suit
Small claims court is generally about money. If you’re looking for monetary damages, figure out how much you’re really entitled to. This means knowing what classification of damages you suffered and how you’re going to prove them. Asking for too much money or too little money means you didn’t prepare properly.