Known as conciliatory court in some parts of the country, small claims filings are a common way to settle disputes concerning things like unpaid wages, return of security deposits to tenants, money owed for damaged property, or claims about the ownership of property typically valued at $10,000 or less. Since there are no lawyers in the courtroom, small claims trials are usually cheaper and decided quicker than regular civil cases. That also means you have your work cut out for you if you want to win. You can hire an attorney to assist you with prep and gathering info and witnesses, but in court it’s on you to construct a solid case and sell it to a judge.
To help you walk out with a “W,” we went to Nick Aquino, Small Claims Court advisory program manager for the Los Angeles County Department of Consumer Affairs, for tips.
1. SIT IN ON A SMALL CLAIMS CASE
The real People’s Court is less dramatic than the made-for-TV versions. Read: They’re boring as hell. Still, you should sit in on a few small claims trials to provide a sense of how much time you’ll have to present your story and what types of questions a judge might ask. “It’s a good idea to go to the specific courthouse and room where your case will be heard,” Aquino advises. “Every judge and commissioner is different, so if you pay a visit, you can get a flavor of what to expect during your hearing.”
2. GET YOUR STORY STRAIGHT
Write down your side of the story. Then ask a friend to listen to what you have. Instruct them to call you out on things that sound weak or questionable. If there are areas to improve, revise. If not, rehearse. “Practice in front of a mirror or a friend, but remember it’s not just about what you say,” he says. “It’s about the quality and organization of the evidence you provide.”
3. ORGANIZE YOUR EVIDENCE
You need hard evidence for a judge to take your claim seriously. Copies or originals of all pertinent receipts, bank statements, medical records, photographs, accident reports, leases, letters, emails, and phone records that connect with your case should be included in your evidence file. “It’s important to be thorough, but if you have more than 10 documents you may be overdoing it,” Aquino warns.
4. PUT A TABLE OF CONTENTS IN YOUR EVIDENCE FOLDER
Make it easy for the judge to sift through important documents by labeling everything. Aquino suggests including a cover page that doubles as a table of contents for your evidence folder. “Write at the top, ‘I have in this packet included information relevant to [whatever the incident is], including a police report, blah blah blah,” he suggests. “And then list the tabs under which the judge can find each document.” On the second half of the page, include a list of relevant events in chronological order. “The accident took place on this date, I first contacted the other party on this date, etcetera.”