What to Expect When You Get to Court

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Small claims courts are often not located in the main courthouse like you might expect. Like a half-forgotten relative, many are housed wherever the city or county has an empty room. In short, don't assume that you know where your small claims court is unless you've been there before or have asked the court clerk for specific directions. Plaintiffs have already had to find the clerk's office to file their papers, so they probably know where the courtroom is, but defendants should check this out in advance. Be sure, too, that your witnesses know exactly where and when to show up. And do plan to be a few minutes early–people who rush in flustered and late start with a strike against them.

Small claims cases are most often scheduled either at 9 a.m or early in the afternoon. Usually a number of cases are set for the same time and heard in turn. In other words, your case may be scheduled for 9 a.m. but may not actually start until about 10 a.m. Arrive a few minutes before 9 a.m. and use any wait time to watch other cases before your own begins. In larger cities, Saturday or evening sessions may also be held. If it is not convenient for you to go to court during business hours and night court is an option, request that your case be scheduled at one of these other sessions.

Most small claims proceedings are conducted in standard courtrooms also used for regular trials.

Leave sharp metal objects at home. This may seem like common sense, but remember that all visitors to courthouses must pass through metal detectors, and if you have scissors, metal knitting needles, a knife, or any other weaponlike object with you, it will be confiscated or held for you by security.

The Courtroom

Most judges still sit on little elevated wooden throne boxes (called "the bench") and wear black robes. In addition to the judge, a clerk and a bailiff will normally be present. They usually sit at tables immediately in front of or next to the judge. The clerk's job is to keep the judge supplied with necessary files and papers and to make sure that proceedings flow smoothly. The bailiff is there to keep order in the courtroom if tempers get out of hand.

Courtrooms are divided about two-thirds of the way toward the front by a little fence (known to initiates as the "bar"). The public must stay on the opposite side of the bar from the judge, clerk, bailiff, and parties, unless asked to come forward. This invitation occurs when the clerk calls your case by name (Smith vs. Jones or Abercrombie vs. Lee). At this point you and any witnesses will normally be asked to step to the front of the room and sit at a table (known as the "counsel table"). You will then face the judge with your back to the spectator section of the courtroom. In a few courtrooms, judges try to hurry things along by asking everyone to stand while their case is being heard. The idea seems to be that if people can't sit down, they will present their cases faster.

In small claims courts, you must swear (or affirm, if you wish) to tell the truth. Often this oath is administered before the first case is heard, to everyone who will testify at that entire session. However, occasionally the oath will be administered to participants separately as each case is called.

In the great majority of small claims courts, you, your opponent, and your witnesses will present the entire case from the counsel table. This means that neither you nor your witnesses sit in the witness box next to the judge.

Courtroom Etiquette 101

From watching television, most of us know that lawyers often dress in expensive, formidable-looking suits. No such formal dress is required for your appearance in small claims court. Although it's polite to dress in a neat and professional manner, it's not required, and if you are coming directly to court from your work as a housepainter, for example, the judge will probably understand and excuse your paint-splattered appearance.

It is also polite–but not required–for parties and witnesses to stand when they address the judge. The respectful and recommended way to address the judge directly is "Your Honor." If you need to refer to the judge in the third person, say "Her Honor" (for example, speaking to the bailiff, "Please give Her Honor these documents").

Other suggestions for showing respect to the court and the other litigants come from Commissioner Douglas G. Carnahan:

  • Don't walk in the "well" of the courtroom, which is the area between the lawyers' table and the judge's bench. This is a security zone, and the bailiff will prevent you from entering it, sometimes rather aggressively.
  • Turn off your cell phones and pagers before you enter the courtroom.
  • Keep courtroom chitchat to a minimum. Many judges find it distracting.
  • Even while you are waiting for your case to be called, an attentive, pleasant demeanor will make a good impression on the judge. This means pay attention, don't read the newspaper, don't chew gum, and don't listen to your iPod.

Be nice to the clerk and the bailiff. The clerk organizes the paperwork, and the bailiff keeps order, although sometimes each person shares some of the other's work. Don't antagonize them; they will often report their (positive or negative) impressions to the judge.

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