If you’ve decided to handle a legal dispute on your own, you might be headed to small claims court. The Indiana Supreme Court has put together a great resource for small claims disputes that can be found here. It is a must for those on their first journey through the small claims process.
Here are a few more thoughts based on my own experiences:
1. Put yourself in the judge’s shoes. Imagine that you are the judge. Two strangers come in and describe two different versions of events. You don’t know them from Adam. What would convince you that your case is right? Most small claims cases are not won or lost on arguments but on evidence – meaning the documents and witnesses that are most helpful to the court.
2. Documents, Documents, Documents. If there’s a receipt, agreement, or repair estimate, or a picture that helps show what the case is about, then bring it. Make enough copies for the court, your opponent, and you.
3. Stay on target. Stay away from personal attacks on you opponent. Don’t talk about his multiple DUI convictions or his status as a deadbeat dad if your dispute is about the fishng boat he sold you that won’t run. It may irritate the judge, and it detracts from the rest of your evidence. If the judge finds in your favor it won’t be because your opponent is a bad person.
4. The case is yours to present, not the judge’s. It’s not the judge’s job to make your case for you or to tell you what evidence to present, or what witnesses should talk next. It’s not a Q&A session. Plan ahead and create an outline of what you’ll ask your witnesses. Start with the basics: who they are, where they live and how they are related to the case (tenant, friend, witness, customer, plumber, etc.) Stick to what each witness saw or heard. Avoid asking a witness who she thinks should win the case. If you are the only witness, plan what you will say. Again, stick to the facts.
5. Remember your audience. You are there to convey information to the judge, not to verbally outshine your opponent. If you are given a chance to cross-examine your opponent or his witnesses, keep it brief. Only ask questions that help the court understand the testimony already given. Don’t help your opponent by giving his witnesses or him a chance to further explain their answers.
6. Finally, don’t interrupt the judge. I know this sounds painfully obvious, but speaking in open court is stressful for anyone. Add inexperience to the mix and you have a recipe for forgetting the basics. If you feel that you absolutely must interrupt the judge, perhaps to correct a misunderstanding the judge has about the facts, try to do it politely, such as “Judge, may I speak?” It’s the equivalent of raising your hand in class.
Even if the claim is a small one and it’s not cost-effective to hire an attorney to represent you in court, you still may find it helpful to simply meet with an attorney about the case before your court date. It might help you focus your presentation to the judge and understand the law that the judge will be using to help make his decision.