Once you've filed papers with the small claims clerk and properly served the other party, the preliminaries are over and you are ready for the main event–your day in court. Movies, and especially TV (yes, even Court TV), have done much to create false impressions of court proceedings. Ask yourself what a trial might have been like before every lawyer fancied himself Raymond Burr, Charles Laughton, or even Johnnie Cochran, and judges acted "parental," or "stern," or "indignantly outraged," in the fashion of Judge Judy.
This type of behavior is a particularly common ailment in small claims court. Cases that should be easily won are sometimes lost because one party or the other goes marching around the courtroom antagonizing everyone with comic opera imitations of television attorneys. And don't assume you are immune. To find out whether you are infected, ask yourself a few self-diagnostic questions:
- Have you frequently watched courtroom scenes on TV or in the movies?
- Have you ever imagined that you were one of the lawyers?
- How many times have you watched a real court case in person as compared to watching a trial that was staged for the media?
I'm sure you get the idea. Chances are good that, like most of us, your idea of what a court proceeding is like comes mostly from Hollywood. If so, the best advice I can give you is to put aside everything you think you have learned by watching the media and just be yourself. To succeed in small claims court, you don't need fancy clothes, words, or attitudes. Just use plain English to tell the judge what happened and why you are right.
This aside, most people who present or defend small claims cases do pretty well. But it's also true that only a few make outstanding presentations. It's fair to ask, what set this elite group apart? I bet you know what I'm going to say. That's right–practice and preparation. The people who do best are those who prepare carefully enough that they are able to make a clear, concise presentation, backed up by the orderly introduction of convincing evidence.
Watch small claims court in action before your own hearing. If you're nervous about your court date or if you want to get a taste of how the court might approach your type of dispute, feel free to visit the court while it is in session and observe how the judges digest and then rule on the cases that are presented to them. You may see an example of your type of case!
Need an interpreter? Look for help from the court or from community organizations. Some courts have interpreters available to translate the court proceedings. Call in advance if this service is needed. If no court interpreter is available, many ethnic and cultural organizations offer interpreter services to low-income persons free of charge. Be sure to contact the appropriate organization well in advance of your court date to ask for help.