The basics of how to bring or defend a case aren't difficult, but trying to get on top of every nuance of procedure and strategy isn't easy. That's why Nolo suggests a two-pronged approach: learn how to handle routine representation tasks yourself while hiring a lawyer as a self-help law coach to provide advice on strategy and tactics as needed. In many situations, hiring a lawyer to coach your self-help efforts will cost only about 10-20% of what it would cost to hire the lawyer to do the entire job.
Ten years ago, trying to find a lawyer who would help you find your own way through the legal system was next to impossible. Today, given the surplus of lawyers and a gradual change in the profession's attitude towards self-helpers, it's much easier. Because law is an increasingly specialized field, however, you'll want to find someone who is knowledgeable about your type of problem -- not just any lawyer. For more information, see Nolo's article Hiring a Lawyer as a Coach.
Actually, it's fairly easy. To start your case, you'll have to file a complaint or claim. Most states have all the forms and a lot of free self-help information online on their small claims court information website. You can also call or visit the small claims court where you plan to file your claim.
Some courts allow you to fill in and file your forms online yourself or through an approved online service provider. In other states, you'll need to fill out the forms and mail or deliver them to the court.
The information required is generally straightforward. Just follow the instructions that come with the forms and use any self-help online resources available. That should be enough to get your case started.
If you're a little unsure about how to proceed with your case, you may be able to bring a lawyer on board as an informal "coach" (not as official counsel). Learn more in Nolo's article Hiring a Lawyer as Coach.
Before a case gets scheduled for trial, a number of things need to happen. Information about most of these -- for example, whether and when a settlement conference must take place, when papers must be filed, and how to place a case on the court's trial calendar -- are available from the court clerk.
Unfortunately, how to accomplish other pre-trial tasks -- which often come under the broad title "discovery" -- is left largely up to you and the other parties to the lawsuit. For example, one type of discovery consists of your taking the deposition (oral statement) of the other party or one or more witnesses to find out what he or she is likely to say at trial. Other types of discovery consist of interrogatories (written questions to the other party), a request to produce documents, or a request that the other party admit certain facts (stipulations). You can get more details about the discovery process in Nolo's articles What to Do After You File Your Lawsuit: Making a Discovery Plan and Formal Discovery: Gathering Evidence for Your Lawsuit.
Allowing for many possible variations, most trials begin with each side making an opening statement: Each party presents an overview of his case, including what he expects to prove. The next stage is the direct examination, during which the plaintiff (the person who filed the suit) presents her testimony as to what happened and supports it with witnesses' statements and other relevant evidence. After each of the plaintiff's witnesses testifies, the defendant gets a chance to cross-examine them. In doing so, the defendant attempts to produce testimony favorable to his version of events and to cast doubt on the reliability or credibility of the plaintiff's witnesses. After the plaintiff has presented all her witnesses, then the defendant presents his witnesses and relevant evidence, and the plaintiff cross-examines. Finally, each side gets to make a closing argument explaining to the judge or jury why they should win.
Want more information on what to expect in court? Check out Nolo's article Ten Tips for Staying Sane in Court.
When you present eyewitnesses, you do so by asking a series of questions. First you need to establish that your witness has personal knowledge of the event in question. This normally means you must show that your witness personally observed, heard, smelled, touched, or tasted whatever he is testifying to. For example, ask questions to establish that your witness was on the spot and overheard the contractor you are suing talking to someone about the details of your garage job. Second, you must learn to ask questions that allow that person to explain whatever he knows that supports your case without putting words into his mouth (called leading the witness). You can learn the basic techniques of how to question a witness and how to object to any improper questions asked by reading Represent Yourself in Court: How to Prepare & Try a Winning Case, by Paul Bergman and Sara J. Berman (Nolo).
It's not hard to learn how to conduct yourself in court. This is especially true if your trial is before a judge without a jury, because many judges make an effort to simplify jargon and procedure for self-represented parties. In addition, there are several practical steps you can take to learn the ropes:
For some types of cases, such as those involving child support or custody, or a request for an injunction (to stop the city from cutting down a tree, for example), you are not entitled to a jury, but in most civil cases, including those involving personal injury, breach of contract, professional malpractice, libel, or slander, you are entitled to a jury trial if you want one.
You may, however, want to think twice before you request a jury trial; it will be more complicated and harder to handle a case before a jury on your own than it would be to represent yourself before a judge. It can be tricky, for example, to participate in the jury selection process. Most who go it alone are better off avoiding this added level of complexity by trying their case in front of a judge -- but, of course, the other party has a say, too, and if that person demands a jury, so be it.
Trying to decide whether it's better to have a judge or jury hear your case? Check out Nolo's article Judge or Jury Trial: Which is Better?
When it comes to small claims court, yes, definitely. Small claims court was designed to be accessible to nonlawyers. In a regular, more formal courtroom, sometimes it's also a good idea to represent yourself. Hiring a lawyer is almost always unaffordable for disputes that involve less than $25,000 and often unaffordable for disputes in the $50,000-$100,000 range. In these cases, representing yourself may be your only reasonable option.
For complete, up-to-date information on court rules and procedures, see Represent Yourself in Court: How to Prepare & Try a Winning Case, by Paul Bergman and Sara J. Berman (Nolo).