Contrary to popular opinion, winning in Small Claims Court does not have to depend on luck, how the judge who gets the case feels that particular day, or even how charismatic each participant happens to be. The trick to winning here revolves primarily around one thing: being properly prepared for the event. In fact, you may even say that it is often the least-prepared party who loses in Small Claims Court, especially if the burden of proof rests more on that person (usually the plaintiff). Assuming that you want to win your case and that the facts are in your favour, you can greatly improve your chances of prevailing if you abide by the following suggestions:
Round up and be ready to provide copies of receipts for all financial transactions related to your case. If you gave the defendant a $200.00 loan, then be ready to prove it. This can be done by providing a copy of the cashed check (getting a copy from your bank), a copy of your checking account statement (showing a withdrawal of said amount), or a copy of the written agreement the defendant signed. Do not bother to bring up any financial transaction unless you can prove (with legible, believable documentation) that such a transaction actually took place.
Bring witnesses. There is no better testimony than that of actual eye-witnesses. Yes, you can also bring signed affidavits, but these are simply not as good. Letters and emails, while they can sometimes be of some limited use, may be considered “hearsay” by the judge, meaning that their legal value is, at best, questionable. In some cases, you may subpoena witnesses who are unwilling to come to your trial, depending on the circumstances of your case, the statutes in your community, and whether you meet the criteria for subpoena powers privileges.
Get most if not all of your documents notarized. Getting pertinent documents notarized is a good way to attest that the documents you are submitting to the court are legitimate, truthful, and up-to-date pieces of evidence, potentially adding credence to your case. Naturally, be sure that you are not lying or exaggerating or misrepresenting anything when you have a document notarized. Doing so may not only lose you the case but may also result in criminal charges of perjury.
Stick to the facts when presenting your case and giving your testimony. To that end, leave out personal observations, innuendos, theories, verbal attacks, opinions, and rambling, incoherent speeches. This common mistake will only obscure the facts in your favour, turn the judge against you, and unnecessarily delay the proceedings. While remaining cool, calm, and collected will not, by itself, win a case (if the facts do not support your case), you can say that some people do lose a case simply because they failed to prove their case in a timely, well-organized manner (even if the facts were mostly in their favour).
Answer questions asked by the judge directly, succinctly, completely, and accurately. Some people make the mistake of elaborating or digressing. In most instances, judges have a good reason for asking a specific question. Answer his or her questions first, then, later on, if necessary, and the allotted time permits it, provide additional information the judge may have overlooked. Keep in mind, though, that some people actually hurt their case by providing facts the judge did not ask for. You need to listen very carefully to the proceedings and which way the judge seems to be leaning. Unless it appears that you are losing the case, do not provide more information than the judge requests. In many cases, that little tidbit of information you want to add may not have any legal bearing on the case; such information may also be detrimental to your case, even if you may not at the time realize it.
Do some research before your case is heard. Find out, for example, what the guidelines are in your county regarding filing a Small Claims Court case, how much you can sue for (this is different for each state), what kind of paperwork you have to fill out (as well as where you have to send it), and what basic recommendations you can find, using online legal resources, regarding your particular case. You do not have to become a lawyer overnight, but the more you know from a legal standpoint, the less ignorant you will sound and the less likely that you will commit a major error, possibly leading to a lost case.
Know and understand what the basic premise of Small Claims Court is. You must have sustained an injury or loss that you can directly attribute to a specific person or legal entity capable of compensating you for your losses, pain, or suffering, and able to be held responsible for the act. It is useless, for example, to sue a child, a homeless person, or an impecunious elderly or disabled person-a minor cannot enter into a legal agreement with anyone (and cannot therefore be sued for such things as breach of contract) and these other persons probably do not have the means to honour a Court’s ruling, even if the Court rules in your favour. In general, government agencies, elected public officials, appointed public officials, and legal entities (such as corporations) not residing in the county where you intend to launch a lawsuit, are generally not subject to Small Claims Court’s jurisdiction.
Be able to demonstrate that a contract (verbal or written) existed between you and the defendant or that the party you are suing is legally liable for your pain, suffering, or losses. If a particular dog bit you, for example, make sure that you can clearly establish that the defendant owned the animal at the time of the incident and that he or she acted negligently or maliciously (such as by forgetting to tie the animal up, letting the animal roam without a leash, or purposely loosening his chain so that it could attack you). Many court cases are lost because the wrong person is named in a lawsuit or because the plaintiff failed to establish direct, palpable liability. Judges will also hesitate to hold someone responsible for what may have been a simple accident or something that was outside the control of the defendant.
Document everything pertaining to the case from day one. Even a legible personal diary or journal that gives exact details and dates may be useful, especially if you can establish that you maintained such a journal on a daily, on-going basis. What comments were made, who did what, when, and why, and how the different parties responded to each event-all these things may help to establish exactly what happened in the case. To this end, keep copies of all letters and emails that you send or receive; do the same for video or audio-taped conversations and happenings. Do not present anything to the court, though, that may actually hurt rather than help your case; be sure to get the opinions of others, if you are not sure whether an item is likely to advance or impede your efforts.
Consult an attorney before going to court. This is especially important if your case is complicated, if there is the possibility that other legal matters (such as criminal charges) may result out of your case, if you will be asking for the maximum amount allowed in Small Claims Court (in Georgia, for example, the cap is set at $15,000.00-an amount which may justify the relatively small fee charged for a consultation by a competent attorney), if you feel that you have a very strong case (which you do not want to compromise by making a silly mistake), and if you need help in composing a strong case. In general, you are not expected to be represented by counsel in Small Claims Court, but there is nothing wrong with consulting one prior to your proceeding. A lawyer can coach you as to what to say (and not say), how to act, what type of evidence your particular situation calls for, and how to get the evidence you need to nail your case.