This section has information about preparing to go to court for a small claims hearing, going to court, and appealing the court's decision.
If you have trouble speaking or understanding English, let the court know as soon as possible. The court can arrange for an interpreter to help you at the hearing, but this can take some time.
The court will send you a notice of the date and time of the hearing. If for some very good reason you can't get to the court on the date of the hearing, you must ask for a delay in writing. A written request for a postponement is called a motion for a continuance. You need to send a copy of that request to the other side in the case and a certificate of service telling the court you sent it.
You must give a reason for the request. For example, if you or a witness you are relying on can't come because you are sick or out of town, you should explain that. The judge will decide whether you have given a good enough reason to reschedule the hearing. The hearing is still scheduled for the time and date on the court's notice unless the court agrees to change the hearing date.
If you have a last-minute emergency on the day of the hearing, please call the court as soon as you know you will not be able to attend.
If you are the plaintiff, you must be prepared to prove your case. If you are the defendant, you should be prepared to provide evidence to the court that the plaintiff is wrong and that you do not owe the money that is claimed. If you have the time, you may want to watch a session of small claims court before your own hearing so you can get used to the courtroom and the process. Call the court [hyperlink to find courts] to find out when there will be a small claims session.
The most important thing you can do before your hearing is to round up all the papers (also called documents or exhibits) that have anything to do with your case.
Use your common sense in deciding what papers you need. If you bring documents to give to the court to support your case, you should bring a copy for the other party and keep a set for yourself. In general, you might consider bringing:
- Any written agreements between you and the other party (such as a lease, in a landlord/tenant case)
- Any letters between you and the other party
- Any bills, paid or unpaid, and any cancelled checks having to do with your case
- Any repair bills or written estimates for repair, if your case involves money owed to you due to faulty repairs
- Photos of damaged property
A witness who saw or heard something may help you make your case. Sometimes witnesses can provide helpful expert testimony. For example, in cases involving poor workmanship (such as repairs on your car), an experienced and neutral person in the same trade makes an ideal witness to testify on your side. If you will use witnesses to help make your case, you should make arrangements with them well before the hearing. The court will usually not accept written statements from witnesses who are not present in the courtroom.
Sometimes witnesses will come to court voluntarily to explain to the judge what they saw or heard. Occasionally, a witness will not come to court voluntarily or cannot get permission to leave work. If you have a witness who is important to your case but won’t come to the hearing voluntarily, ask the clerk to issue a subpoena. There is no charge for the subpoena, but you will have to pay the witness $30 for the witness’s appearance in court, plus mileage for the witness’s travel to and from court. You can check the mileage rate here. The subpoena must be delivered to the witness in person, along with the witness fee and mileage reimbursement. You can have it delivered by a county deputy sheriff or any other person who is at least 18 years old and is not a party to your case case (is not either the plaintiff or the defendant). You have to give the witness fair notice in advance of the hearing. Try to have the subpoena delivered at least 10 days before the hearing.
On the day of the hearing, it's a good idea to arrive at court early so you have a chance to look around and feel comfortable. Getting there early also gives you a chance to talk with the other party and maybe settle the case without a hearing. When you get to court, please check in with the court officer in the courtroom to let them know you are there.
The judge will try to make the hearing as simple as possible. You should come prepared to present your side of the case. You can bring a lawyer if you want. You should bring any people, papers, or anything else that might help your case. If you bring papers, be sure to have copies for the court, the other party, and yourself.
When your case is called, you should come forward. The court officer will guide you in taking an oath to tell the truth.
If the other party has a lawyer, don’t worry. It is the judge, not the lawyer, who controls the hearing. The judge will ask you to tell your side of the story. At that time you should show any proof you have. The judge may also question any witnesses that either party has. Finally, the judge may ask both of you if you have a final statement or questions to ask the other side. If you are the defendant and you have a counterclaim, be sure to explain that when you testify.
At the hearing the judge focuses on:
- Allowing you and the other party to have your say
- Getting the facts so that he or she understands the case
The judge may decide the case right away or may take more time to think about the case. If the judge needs more time to think about the case, the court will send you the decision in writing. The judge's decision is called a judgment. It is a written order saying who won the case and whether one party has to pay the other party money.
Some Do’s and Don’ts for Your Hearing
- Be brief. Give the court all the information it needs but don’t be long-winded. The judge will want to hear all of the important facts as briefly as possible. It may be helpful to make an outline of what you want to say for your own use, but you should come prepared to explain your claim or defense to the court. This way, you will be sure you haven’t left anything out.
- Be polite at all times.
- Don’t interrupt the other party, the judge, or any of the witnesses.
Either party in a small claims case may appeal the decision. You should consider talking to a lawyer before deciding to appeal a judgment. An appeal can be difficult to do on your own.
To appeal, you must file a notice of appeal and pay a filing fee within 30 days from the date the court issued the judgment. File the notice of appeal with the Civil Division of the superior court clerk. You can fill in the notice of appeal online and then print it, or you can print out a blank notice and fill it in by hand.
An appeal is not a new trial. On appeal, you can’t present new facts to the judge. An appeal is a chance for a different judge to review the case and decide whether the first judge made mistakes in the law when deciding your case. On the Notice of Appeal form, you should explain what legal mistakes you think the small claims judge made in your case.
All appeals must be filed within 30 days of the date the court issues the judgment in the case.