After you file your case and serve the appropriate papers on the defendant, you will be assigned a hearing date. The hearing date will give you an opportunity to speak with the judge about your case and the relief that you are seeking. It is generally a good idea to prepare as much as possible for the hearing by collecting evidence, organizing documents you may present to the judge, reviewing the facts of the case, and preparing yourself to answer any questions that the judge may have. Naturally, the opposing party will have his or her own argument against the relief you are seeking. It is helpful to anticipate the defendant’s arguments and prepare a response in case the issue comes up during the hearing. If you are nervous about appearing before a judge, you may want to practice with a trusted colleague or friend who is familiar with the situation.
It is also a good idea to ensure that any individuals whom you intend to present as witnesses are aware of the hearing date and are able to appear with you during the hearing. Be sure to go over the facts of the case with your witnesses in advance of the hearing so that they are fully prepared to testify about their impressions of the incident. Preparing a witness will also help you determine whether the witness will ultimately be helpful or hurtful to you. A witness may recall events in a different manner that may be hurtful to your case. If a witness refuses to appear in court, you can serve them with a subpoena by filing out a form with the small claims court clerk in advance of the hearing.
Your Day in Court
Once your hearing day arrives, be sure you have arranged for transportation to the court, looked up information about parking, and know how to find the courthouse. A courthouse is a busy building with lots of people and traffic. Usually, information about departments and hearing locations will be posted somewhere in the courthouse lobby. Most small claims courts will post a list of the matters to be heard each day outside the department door. Once you arrive at the courthouse, check this list for your name and make sure that your case will be heard that day. If you do not see your name or case number on the list, consult the small claims clerk.
After you ensure that you are in the right department and that your case is on the list of matters to be heard, take a seat and relax. The judge or bailiff will call out each case and the names of the parties. During this time, you may see the opposing party. This is a good opportunity to make one last effort at resolving the dispute through a settlement agreement. A judge will appreciate that you have taken a proactive approach to the dispute and that you have shown your good faith interest in resolving the matter. Some courts offer mediations, or other alternative dispute resolution programs, that can help you communicate with the defendant about the matter and reach a settlement. If you resolve the matter informally, it is a good idea to put the terms of your settlement agreement in writing.
Resolution of Your Claim
If you resolve the case prior to the hearing, you may dismiss your claim by filing a form with the court known as a Request for Dismissal. Sometimes there is not enough time to file a Request for Dismissal in advance of the hearing. In this instance, you can inform the judge of your settlement and ask for a dismissal on the record.
If you do not resolve your dispute, plan to appear before the judge and present your case. Once your case is called, it is important to follow directions and listen carefully to what the judge has to say. Although the situation may be emotionally charged, remain calm and always use your most professional and courteous tone when communicating with the court and the other parties involved. Typically, the judge will provide you with a few minutes to present your side of the case. The judge will then ask questions to clarify his or her understanding of the events and the relief being sought. Do not speak out of turn and refrain from interrupting the judge or the opposing party. Answer questions carefully and always be honest. If you do not know the answer to a question, it is better to respond by saying you do not possess that information than to guess or lie.