How to Win Your Small Claims Case

By Patrick Gleeson, Ph. D., Registered Investment Adv ; Updated June 12, 2017
Judge and gavel in courtroom

Here is the basic information you need to bring forward your winning suit in small claims court. This includes preparatory steps, such as finding the right court forms and serving the defendant, court requirements, such as proof of claims, and effective presentation of your claims to the judge.

Researching Small Claims Requirements

Every jurisdiction has slightly different requirements for filing a small claims suit. Fortunately, almost all small claims courts provide a lot of guidance to help you file a successful claim, which includes the small claims suit form itself, instructions on filling it out and – in many jurisdictions – small claims law clerks who are available to answer specific questions about filing your case.

Begin by going online and searching for "small claims court (your jurisdiction)." Searching "small claims court Dubuque," for example, brings up several helpful sites:

  • An Iowa Judicial Branch overview, "Small Claims Information," includes both the necessary form for filing your claim and detailed instructions for filling it out along with specific filing requirements, such as dollar amount limits (which range from $2,500 to $25,000 in different jurisdictions). It also features the applicable statute of limitations (how long you have to file from the time the precipitating incident occurred) which varies from three years to 10 years, also depending on jurisdiction. 
  • Several related explainers from Iowa Legal Aid.
  • More explanatory articles from Iowa Student Legal Services and private law firms. 

Filing Your Claim

Each small claims jurisdiction has its own rules for filing claims. In most jurisdictions, failing to follow these rules exactly may result in the court returning your claim for refiling, often after a several weeks-long delay.

There's nothing intellectually difficult about these requirements, but read your court's rules carefully: some courts accept email filings, others do not and some require you to file in person. Some jurisdictions may require that the filing itself or other related documents be notarized. Almost all jurisdictions charge a relatively modest filing fee – usually under $100.00 – but payment terms (cash or acceptable credit cards) differ by jurisdiction.

Serving the Defendant

In order to bring the opposing party to court you'll need to serve him the court-supplied notice that he's been sued, which includes your claim and a demand that the defendant appear in court. Service requirements vary in detail in different jurisdictions, but the essentials are

  • You must correctly identify the defendant by name and address.
  • If the defendant is a corporation, you must serve the corporation through its state-registered "agent for service." You can locate the agent through your state's agent for service registry, which is generally overseen by the Office of the Secretary of State. Go online and search "(your state) secretary of state agent for service." 
  • You must serve the defendant notice of suit through a third party, usually a professional process server. It pays to shop around a bit for the claims service because charges vary. It's also a good idea to have the claims service perform the necessary notice of service to small claims court – many process servers will include this without an extra charge if you ask. Unless the court receives a timely notice that the defendant has been served, your hearing will be cancelled.   

Preparing for Trial

You'll need to prepare for trial in three different areas:

  1. Prepare your story. Avoid digging into details. Rehearse your presentation before the judge until you can quickly present the few essential points that support your claim without "uhms" and "uhs."
  2. If you intend to call a witness (most small claims plaintiffs do not) discuss the proposed testimony with that witness beforehand. You're not allowed to ask the witness to change her testimony, but you need to know what the witness intends to say. In some cases, you may decide at that point not to call the witness because her testimony doesn't support your case in the way you'd anticipated. Although you can subpoena a witness to require them to appear, in most small claims cases if that's what it takes to get the witness to testify, the witness may be visibly reluctant or ineffective in court. If, nevertheless, you decide to issue a subpoena, instructions are available at your small claim court's website. Similarly, although in most small claims courts you have the right to depose witnesses – that is require them to appear in a pretrial hearing to give testimony – it's not often a good idea. First of all, it can be expensive – you'll need a court reporter to take down what is said in the deposition. Secondly, conducting a deposition is like playing the piano – doing it well takes a lot of practice. And because you'll need the court's permission to depose, it can slow down your case by several months.
  3. Prepare your evidence, which may be receipts, contracts, or any other document that backs up your claim. Most small claims courts allow photocopies of documents, but present originals if you have them. Be sure you understand exactly how each document supports your case. Arrange some simple system, such as one or more manila folders, to keep these documents at hand and ready for presentation. 

Presenting Your Case

Many books have been written on presenting effectively in court. A couple of useful books on the subject, particularly applicable to small claims cases, are included in this article's Resources. But here are a few of the most essential points:

  • Go to your small claims court at least once before your trial and simply observe. If you know which judge will hear your case, seeing how he conducts his trials will tell you a lot about how to present your own case when the time comes. 
  • Be humble and mild-mannered in your presentation. Do not make the mistake of acting like an attorney in a tv series; judges generally react unfavorably to know-it-alls. The judge is the only big ego allowed in any courtroom.
  • Don't try to buddy up to the judge. Jokes, clever remarks and putdowns of the defendant also weaken your case. 
  • Stick to the main points. Be aware that the judge may interrupt your carefully prepared presentation, either to ask a question or because he's heard enough. Accepting this without comment is the best response. 
  • State that you have evidence available, but don't assume the judge wants to see it. If he does, he'll ask for it.  
  • If the defendant interrupts your presentation, simply stop and wait to see what happens. In most cases, the judge will instruct the defendant not to interrupt. That's his job, not yours.  
  • Never interrupt the defendant's presentation. You'll have a chance to respond afterward. This can be a hard rule to follow, particularly if the defendant isn't telling the truth, but remaining calm and well-mannered is essential to winning your case.  

About the Author

Patrick Gleeson received a doctorate in 18th century English literature at the University of Washington. He served as a professor of English at the University of Victoria and was head of freshman English at San Francisco State University. Gleeson is the director of technical publications for McClarie Group and manages an investment fund. He is a Registered Investment Advisor.