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How to Represent Yourself in Small Claims Court

It's quite possible to represent yourself in small claims court. Here's how to do it right.

As we discussed last week, filing a lawsuit in small claims court can be a seriously intimidating prospect, especially since California requires small claims litigants to represent themselves in court. However, it’s more than possible to be successful in small claims court, as long as you properly prepare yourself. Last week we focused on proper preparation for handling a small claims case, so it’s only logical that this week we discuss what to do when you actually get to court. While our previous discussion had more of a technical focus on the small claims process, this time around we will be focusing on general courtroom behavior and procedure (and thus you can use this as a guide for just about any type of case, not just small claims).

Proper behavior in the courtroom

By the time you get into the courtroom, you should have all of the necessary paperwork in order (refer to our previous blog post for more on this). But you can still hurt your case with faux pas that cast you in a bad light. Here are a few of the most important rules to follow:

Get to court early, and definitely don’t be late. Believe it or not, a case can be dismissed simply because you fail to show up. No matter how solid your legal argument is, it doesn’t matter if you don’t actually make it to the courtroom. And chances are that your judge isn’t going to be sympathetic because you slept through your alarm or got stuck in traffic. Give yourself an extra hour to find parking, find your courtroom, and review your paperwork. (In fact, it’s a good idea to visit the courthouse ahead of time to familiarize yourself with the layout, so you don’t get lost on the day of your hearing.) This will go a long ways towards settling the butterflies in your stomach and being able to represent yourself in a calm and well-spoken manner.

Don’t forget your paperwork. Be sure to bring any necessary paperwork or documents that you wish to use as evidence. If you have any witnesses who will be testifying, then they need to accompany you to the hearing.

Dress the part. Just as it’s important to make a good impression at a job interview, you need to do the same in court as well. Frankly, that is the simplest advice to give for how to dress appropriately for court: Dress as if you are going to a really promising job interview. You should be clean, conservative, and kempt. If you don’t take the court seriously, the judge may not take your case as seriously.

Be polite to everyone. You never know who talks to whom in a courthouse. That random courthouse staff member that you were rude to may just so happen to be on a first-name basis with the judge, and bump into them just before it’s time for the court to convene. Treat everyone as if the judge was standing next to you.  This is especially true when you are in your courtroom.  It is important to treat the court staff with respect and courtesy; court clerks should be referred to as “Madam/Sir Clerk” and the bailiff or court attendant as “Ma’am/Sir.”

Turn your phone off. It’s easy to get rattled in a courtroom. And it’s safe to say that one of the most mortifying situations imaginable is to be standing in front of a judge when a friend calls and your phone starts blaring your ringtone across the courtroom. Don’t just set it on vibrate—the wood table you’ll be standing at is quite effective at magnifying the sound of a vibrating phone into a dull roar. Turn your phone off when you walk through the front doors of the courthouse, and don’t turn it back on until you leave the courtroom.  In some courtrooms, the judge will confiscate your phone until the end of the day if it goes off in court!

Don’t bring your children to the courtroom. Small children are not allowed in the courtroom, so it will be necessary to arrange appropriate care for them beforehand. The Sacramento Small Claims Court does offer a free children’s waiting room for children who are toilet-trained and at least 2 and a half years old. Smaller children can also use the room, as long as a friend or relative accompanies them.

Sit in the back and wait. Small claims courts hear many cases in a single session. When you enter the courtroom, look for available seating in the back. You will be called forward when it’s your turn. Real life isn’t like The People’s Court, where litigants walk straight up to the front.

How to act in the courtroom

Judges have a lot to get done in the course of their day, and they have little patience for anything that slows the process down. Here are a few tips on how to handle yourself once it’s your turn to present your case.

Be patient during the preparatory process. There is a lot that will happen before you are called up. A video will be shown explaining how the court works, and then a court officer will explain the mediation process. In Sacramento and many other counties, participation in mediation before you go in front of the judge is mandatory. Roll will be taken, and you may be directed to another courtroom. If you and the defendant are both present, you will be asked to go out in the hallway and exchange copies of any documents that you’ll each present when the case is heard (it can make things easier to bring a copy just for them!). The court may have other paperwork for you to sign or review, and likely the court clerk will have everyone in the courtroom take an oath to tell the truth.

Introduce yourself. When it’s your turn, the court clerk will call your name. At this point you will be invited to walk up to the appropriate podium. It’s a good idea to introduce yourself to the judge in a succinct but polite manner. For instance: “Hello your honor. My name is Jane Smith, and I am the plaintiff in this case.” Make sure that you always speak slowly, loudly, and clearly, so that you can be easily heard.

Stating your case. At this point, the judge will ask to hear both sides of the case, usually starting with the plaintiff. The idea is to give a general summary of what happened, and the nature of your claim. The judge will ask questions later on, so don’t worry about describing everything in exhaustive detail. It shouldn’t take you longer than a minute or so to state your case.

Answering the judge’s questions. Where necessary, the judge will ask you questions about the background or details of your case. Before you begin to answer, take a moment to put together what you are going to say. You don’t want to get halfway through a response and realize that you don’t know where you’re going with it, or that you’re about to contradict yourself. If you don’t have an answer for the judge’s question, then say so. If you are confused by the judge’s question, ask them to clarify. DO NOT LIE. It’s better to state a truth that may hurt your case than to tell a lie. Nothing will sink a case faster than being caught in a lie by the judge. Lastly, never direct your answers at the other party. Speak to the judge as if you are the only two people in the courtroom, even if the other side talks to you.

Never interrupt or react to the other side. When the judge is talking to the other side, it is extremely important that you are quiet and polite. Do not interrupt your opponent, and be very careful about your body language. Judges are like your mother: they have eyes in the backs of their heads, and nothing next to lying makes them more angry than a rude litigant who sighs loudly, rolls their eyes, or interrupts the other party. If you cannot control yourself, you may be excused from the courtroom or even have your case dismissed. If the other party interrupts you when it’s your turn, simply stop speaking and let the judge handle it.

Be prepared to evaluate a settlement offer. During small claims cases, it’s not unusual for the judge or defendant to put forth a settlement offer. If you are given such an offer, take a moment to consider it carefully. Judges generally want to treat plaintiffs fairly and give them what they deserve. Just because you aren’t being offered everything you want doesn’t mean that you’ll get a better deal later by turning down a settlement offer. If the offer is reasonable, it’s probably wise to accept it.

Once the hearing is over

Chances are, you’re going to have to find out the judge’s decision. While the details differ from court to court, judges in the Sacramento Small Claims Court do not make a decision in the courtroom (unless you accept a settlement offer). In all likelihood, after both sides have testified, the judge will state that he or she will examine the case further, and that you will receive the ruling by mail (this can take around a month or so).

If you win your case, then you have the right to collect your judgment. If you’re lucky, the defendant will do so willingly. But unfortunately, sometimes defendants will not do so, and you’ll have to take further steps to enforce the court judgment and collect on it. It may be necessary to have a lawyer assist you with this process.

If you lose your case, then the case is over. While some states allow plaintiffs to appeal small claims cases, this is not the case in California. When plaintiffs choose to have their case heard in a California small claims court, they agree to give up the right to appeal the case. However, defendants are allowed to appeal the ruling one time if they lose. This is why it’s extremely important to carefully consider any settlement offers put forth by the other side, the mediator, or the judge.. As pointed out by the site, there are two key advantages to using the mediation process: you have an active role in deciding the outcome, instead of having a judge decide, and secondly, you can raise many issues that may not be allowed in court.

If you are considering going through the small claims process, we hope that the above overview is helpful. While California does not allow lawyers to represent clients in small claims court, we can help you prepare your small claims case, coach you to be prepared for court, attend court with you in case you have questions during the proceedings, and help enforce a small claims judgment. If you would like assistance, please contact us through our website, or call us at 916-400-4516. We would be happy to schedule an appointment to meet with you, and help you determine the best approach for attaining the best possible outcome.