Presenting Your Testimony and Evidence in Small Claims Court

Impress the judge by keeping your comments and paperwork in good order.

Updated by , Attorney · University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law

Presenting your case in front of a small claims court judge can be stressful. But there are ways to combat the nerves. The easiest way is to come to court with a well-organized gameplan. For instance, you'll want to be sure that you prepare:

  • a brief overview of your case
  • questions for witnesses, and
  • the evidence you intend to introduce (documents, photographs, receipts, and the like).

For answers to common small claims court questions, see Small Claims Court FAQ.

Organizing Your Small Claims Court Presentation

It's essential that you organize your case ahead of time. One way to do this is by dividing the witness testimony—both yours and the testimony of anyone else you bring—into a list of the several main points you want to make. In many cases, it's best to have written questions so that you don't struggle with phrasing while under pressure.

Make sure to indicate where you plan to introduce any documents or other physical evidence you wish to show the judge. Your witness will need to testify as to the authenticity of the document. For instance, you might testify that a copy of a letter is a true and correct copy of the demand letter you sent to the defendant (the person being sued) requesting payment.

It's a good idea to have at least three copies of each document. You'll have to give one to the judge, one to the opposing side, and one the court clerk. Organize the evidence in the order that you'll present it so that you can find each item quickly.

Learn more about offering witness testimony.

Example of Plaintiff's Small Claims Court Presentation

Let's assume a hotel's failed to return your deposit when you canceled a wedding reception three months before the event was to be held. This would be a small claims breach of contract case—a type of case regularly brought before a small claims court.

If you're the plaintiff, you will present your case first. Here is a list of what your key points—and the evidence to back them up—might look like:

  • 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 the cancellation occurred more than 60 days before the event. (Show the contract to the judge.)
  • When I canceled, Valley View told me that their cancellation policy had been changed the previous month to require 90 days' notice to get a refund.
  • While Valley View claims they sent me a letter about the policy change, 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 before the policy change. I never signed a new contract, so 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 I canceled 83 days in advance, which was plenty of time 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 the list to the judge.)

Find out about other common types of small court cases.

Example of Defendant's Small Claims Responsive Testimony

A defendant must wait to present until after the plaintiff finishes doing so. A defendant can't know in advance what the plaintiff will say and what evidence the plaintiff will present until hearing the evidence. Thus, Valley View, like any other defendant, 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 before 60 days before the event, the plaintiff was notified in two different ways that this policy had been changed to 90 days:
    1. A sign on the reservations desk where the plaintiff sat to sign the contract. (Show sign to judge.)
    2. Testimony of Angie Ells, who booked the reservation. Angie will testify that she included written notice of the change with the contract package. (Show judge a copy of the notice.)

Additional Small Claims Help

If you're just starting your research, learn about when you should sue in small claims court. For more help preparing your testimony and evidence, see Everybody's Guide to Small Claims Court, by attorney Cara O'Neill (Nolo).