1. Imagine Your Small Claims Court Date in Advance.
Most small claims court dates start with a mediation session that the court hopes will result in a settlement of the case without a trial. If there is no settlement prior to the court date or in mediation, the court will hold a trial with one judge.
Most California and other state’s small claims court trials are short, less than one day. Plaintiffs generally testify and present their evidence or witnesses first. The plaintiff has the burden of proof in nearly all small claims court cases. After plaintiff’s evidence is heard, the defendant gets to present their side of the story – if they wish. Once each side has had a chance to present their evidence, there is some back and forth and the judge gets to ask questions as needed. Finally, each side normally gets a chance to present a final argument.
By imaging the trial in advance, you can start to predict what the evidence may show, what issues will come up, and what the judge is going to think is important.
2. Make a List of What Evidence You Think The Other Side Has, and Prepare For It.
Don’t be a fool and assure the other side has no evidence at all. Think about what is out there that may help your opponent, and expect them to bring it to the trial. Prepare for it. Is there a contract? Was there a passenger in that car that can be a witness? What receipts are out there? Repair estimates?
3. Ask Witnesses to Appear in Court With You.
If there are witnesses who may be able to help your case, you can ask them to appear for the trial. You should not discuss their testimony, for fear of being accused of coaching a witness. But you can ask them to appear for the trial. Important witnesses can and should be subpoenaed to appear for the trial several weeks in advance. The court clerks office can issue subpoenas to help small claims litigants get the evidence they need for trial. Check your court’s local rules for more info on small claims subpoenas.
4. Make a List of Your Own Evidence, and What It Shows.
What evidence do you want to show the judge? Make a list of it. Then, identify what each piece of evidence will prove for you. If you cannot figure out why a piece of evidence is relevant, don’t use it.
Do you have evidence confirming or disputing damages? Do you have evidence that proves or disproves liability? What is it?
5. Look Up the Relevant Law in Advance in the Civil Jury Instructions.
The best free source for information on what law applies for common claims is found in the California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI). In those jury instructions, you can find the law that the judge must follow for breach of contract claims, auto accident negligence claims, libel claims, and fraud.
6. Collect and Organize Your Evidence.
Photos, records, maps, physical things are all evidence you can use in a small claims court trial. Go take the photo. Print out the map you need. Get a copy of that contract if you need it. Get your bank records in advance if you need them. Put them in an organizational format that helps you remember what order you want for your evidence.
7. Outline a Final Argument Based on What Your Expect to Come Up in the Trial.
You cannot predict how the evidence will come out in advance. But you can outline a final argument in advance, based upon the issues and evidence you expect to appear in the trial. A few bullet points in advance can be used in the trial to remind the judge what the evidence showed, who has the burden of proof, and why the judge should rule in your favor. Ask the judge to rule in your favor.