Small claims court provides a legal channel for nonexperts to bring disputes over lower dollar amounts, usually $5,000 or less. Winning your case requires you to convince the judge of your side and its legal merit by a preponderance of the evidence, which means that he must believe you more than the defendant.
Follow Proper Procedure
Contact the court clerk where you plan to file your small claims case. This is usually the small claims court in which the defendant lives or works. The court clerk may inform you of certain procedures that you must follow. Typically, you must complete a complaint form in which you state the following:
- Reason why you are suing.
Facts surrounding the case.
Amount of money you are requesting.
You also must have the defendant served in accordance with your state law, which may require in-person service or service by certified mail. Ask the server, whether it is a private process server or the sheriff, to send you and the court a copy of the document that proves the defendant was served. Otherwise, the defendant may be able to get the case dismissed on procedural grounds.
Prepare Your Evidence
"Failure to provide necessary evidence will destroy your chances of winning." -- American Bar Association
Gather all evidence that you think may help you prove your case. If there were witnesses to the event leading to the lawsuit, contact them and ask if they are willing to appear in court on your behalf. Their written statements may be considered hearsay and may not be accepted in court. Some documents and physical evidence that may help you prove your case include:
- Communication between you and the defendant.
- Police reports.
- Estimates or bills for services rendered.
- Cancelled checks.
If the defendant is countersuing you, have evidence that contradicts his claims. You must have a specific dollar amount of damages that you are requesting; otherwise, the judge cannot give you an award, according to the Indiana Judicial Center.
Watch Other Cases
Go to small claims court to observe other parties' cases. The Self Help Legal Center of the Southern Illinois University School of Law states that the "best way to find out what will happen at your small claims hearing is to go to court" and watch other people's cases. It also states that small claims cases are usually heard on the same day by the same judge, so this can help you get a better feel for the types of cases heard and the judge's demeanor.
Be courteous and polite when appearing in court. Judges expect a certain degree of decorum. Make a good impression by using proper titles, not interrupting and dressing appropriately.
Prove Your Case
Attend the hearing and present your case. Jane Bennett Clark, an author for Kiplinger's Personal Finance, recommends being concise and sticking to the basics. The judge does not need all of the back story or the emotional baggage. Instead, focus on the main points of the case, such as that the defendant agreed to pay for services you performed and he failed to do so. Provide the judge with the relevant proof after you make a statement. For example, present the contract after you say that you and the defendant had a contract. The Wisconsin Tenant Resource Center states that you need three copies of every piece of evidence: one for you, one for the defendant and one for the judge.
Some small claims cases allow you to be represented by a lawyer. Inquire whether this is an option and if it makes sense for you to have an attorney with you at your hearing.