Once you are pretty sure your case can't be settled and you will need to go to court, your best approach is to practice presenting it. Line up an objective, tough-minded friend and run through your entire case just as you plan to on court day. Ask your friend for suggestions, not compliments. For example, your friend may tell you that you need a witness or written documentation, a better grasp of the legal technicalities involved, or a better-organized presentation. Take this advice to heart and make all possible improvements. Then, practice again.
The four key phrases to remember as you prepare and practice your courtroom presentation are:
- Be polite to the judge, your opponent, the clerk, and the bailiff.
- Bring evidence from witnesses or documents to supplement your own verbal statement of the facts.
- Organize your presentation to include only necessary facts in a logical way.
- Keep it short. Remember that the person who is deciding your case has heard thousands of similar stories and will get bored or annoyed if you are needlessly repetitive.
Finally, don't let the robe and other trappings of judicial office obscure the fact that you are dealing with a human being who, like anyone else, is far more likely to be sympathetic to your point of view if you can show that you occupy the moral high ground (for example, you are honest, kind, and pay your debts) and that your opponent is the bad guy (tricky, hard-hearted, and fails to keep promises).
Organize Your Testimony and Evidence
Normally, the plaintiff will be asked to present his or her case first and introduce any witnesses, who will also get a chance to have their say. When the plaintiff is done, it will be the defendant's turn to speak and present witnesses. Both sides should have any papers or other evidence that backs up their story carefully organized to present to the judge. This can include bills, receipts, estimates, photographs, contracts, letters to or from your opponent, and other types of documentation or physical evidence. At the appropriate place in your presentation, tell the judge you have evidence you want to present, and then hand it to the clerk, who in turn will give it to the judge. Appropriate documentation can be a huge aid to winning your case. But don't go overboard: Judges are a little like donkeys–load them too heavily and they are likely to become uncooperative and possibly even ornery.
Copies of documents. It is courteous but not required to bring at least three copies of each document you plan to show the judge: one for you, one for the judge, and one for your opponent. You can highlight or otherwise make notes on your copies to remind yourself why the particular document is important.
As you plan your courtroom strategy, give thought to your opponent. What sort of presentation will the person make? And even more important, how can you best counter any arguments? Figuring out how to cope with your opponent's best points is not only an effective way to flesh out your case, but it can be a good way to turn the negative energy you probably feel (frustration, annoyance, anger) into something creative.
Always be polite when presenting or defending your case. If you are hostile or sarcastic, you run the considerable risk of losing the respect of the judge. Never interrupt your opponent when he or she is speaking–you will get your chance. When you do, lay out the key facts that support your position directly to the judge; don't get into an argument with the other side. It's the judge you need to convince, not your opponent.
It's essential that you organize what you have to say and the physical evidence you wish to show the judge. Do this by dividing your testimony into a list of the main points you want to make. Under each heading, note any items of physical or documentary evidence you wish to show the judge. If your evidence consists of a number of items, make sure that you put them in order and can find each item quickly.
A Sample Case
Let's assume you are the plaintiff in a case that is based on a hotel's failure to return your deposit when you canceled a wedding reception three months before the event was to be held. Your list of key points–and the evidence to back them up–might look like this:
- Valley View Hotel refused to return my $500 deposit when I canceled my wedding reception.
- This was true even though I canceled 83 days before the event.
- The contract I signed with the hotel allowed a full refund if cancellation occurred more than 60 days before the event. (Show contract to the judge.)
- When I canceled, Valley View told me (and claims they sent me a letter stating) that their cancellation policy had been changed the previous month to require 90 days' notice in order to get a refund.
- I never received a letter and had no idea of the policy change until I canceled and asked for my money back.
- Even if Valley View did send me a letter, the change should not affect my contract, which was signed before the policy change. The key point here is, because I never signed a new contract, the existing contract was still valid.
- In any event, the hotel has a duty to try and rerent the banquet room to minimize (mitigate) any damages they suffered. And they had plenty of time (83 days) to do so.
- Ninety days is an unreasonably long cancellation policy.
- Here is a list of the cancellation policies of five other hotels in the area, all of which allow a full refund on much shorter notice than 83 days. (Give list to the judge.)
Because Valley View goes second, their representative can't know in advance what the plaintiff will say and what evidence it will present. It follows that Valley View will need to adopt a little more flexible approach. Still, chances are that Valley View reps have talked to the plaintiff or exchanged letters, so they probably have a pretty good idea of what to expect. Accordingly, Valley View's list might look something like this.
- True, we didn't refund the $500. The reason was we turned down two other receptions for that same day before the plaintiff canceled. Because we ended up with no other function, we lost at least $500.
- Although it is true that the written contract allowed cancellation prior to 60 days before the event, plaintiff was notified that this policy had been changed to 90 days before the contract was signed in two ways:
- A sign on the reservations desk where the plaintiff sat to sign the contract. (Show sign to judge.)
- Testimony of Angie Ells, who booked the reservation. Angie will testify that she included a written notice of the change with the contract package. (Show judge a copy of the notice.)
How to Cope With the Big Lie
Although not an everyday occurrence, big lies definitely are told in small claims court and can sometimes strongly influence the judge in your opponent's favor if you aren't prepared to poke holes in them. If your adversary tells a whopper, your best approach is to wait calmly for your turn to speak and then say something like this: "Your Honor, almost everything defendant (or plaintiff) has said about __X__ is simply not true. Please let me prove this to you with facts." Then present your testimony and evidence–or if you have already shown the judge key evidence, remind the judge of how it demonstrates that your opponent's story is totally false. For example, if your former landlord who failed to return your security deposit swears you left the apartment filthy, you will totally destroy his or her credibility if you can show the judge photos that demonstrate how clean it really was. Fortunately, if you can demonstrate that your opponent has told one big lie, the judge will distrust and hopefully disbelieve the rest of what that person says.
Should You Hire a Lawyer?
Many states allow lawyers to represent clients in small claims court, although some states do not. Even in states that allow lawyers, however, the amount of money at stake often doesn't justify paying a lawyer's legal fees. It may be cost-effective, though, to hire a lawyer to give you advice only. If you are worried about some legal aspect of your case and can't get an answer from the court clerk or by doing your own research, it might make sense to discuss the problem with a lawyer. It should not cost more than $100-$200 for a short consultation. Make sure you negotiate the fee in advance.
It's perfectly proper to get assistance from a lawyer. A lawyer can be extremely helpful in preparing your case, especially if it's complicated.