In small claims court -- or for that matter any court -- it's essential that you organize what you have to say and the documents and/or other physical evidence you wish to show the judge. Do this by dividing your testimony into a list of the several main points you want to make. Under each heading, note any evidence you will bring 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.
Let's assume your case 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. (Show the judge the letter from Valley View refusing a refund.)
This was true even though I canceled 83 days before the event. (Show the judge your cancellation letter.)
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 the event 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 prior to 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 had a duty to try and re-rent the banquet room to minimize any damages it suffered. And the hotel 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 the defendant always goes second, Valley View's representative can't know in advance what the plaintiff will say and what evidence she will present. Thus, Valley View will need to adopt a little more flexible approach. Still, because Valley View representatives have probably talked to or exchanged letters with the plaintiff, they probably have a pretty good idea of what to expect. Accordingly, Valley View's list might look like this:
True, we didn't refund the $500. The reason was we turned down two other receptions for that same day before plaintiff canceled. Because we ended up with no other function, we lost at least $500. (Show the judge letters or notes of telephone conversations declining the other receptions.)
Although it is true that the written contract allowed cancellation prior to 60 days before the event, plaintiff was notified in two different ways that this policy had been changed to 90 days: