8 Steps to Success in Small Claims Court

March 1, 2007

Emily Doskow, a part time small claims court judge and a legal editor at Nolo (www.nolo.com), which just released its 11th edition of Everybody’s Guide to Small Claims Court by Ralph Warner, shares these tips for making your day in court a happy one.

  1. Know your limits. Each state has monetary limits on the size of cases allowed in small claims court. Top limits range from $1,500 to $15,000. Also note that only some states allow eviction proceedings to be heard in small claims courts.
  2. Find out whether the person can pay you. Even if you win your case, you most likely won’t collect if the losing party doesn’t have enough resources.
  3. Decide if you have a case. Review the hard evidence you have written proof of your arguments, photos, or written declarations from witnesses. You can go to court with just your word against the other person’s, but it’s a tougher go.
  4. Get your paperwork in order. Obtain any necessary forms you need to file to get your case on the court’s docket. Many forms are available online, often at your local government’s or the court’s site.
  5. Make friends with the court clerk. Don’t be rude to the clerks; as the people with whom you file your documents, they can become your best friends in explaining procedures to get your case to court. Clerks can’t give legal advice, but they can make your life a lot easier.
  6. Get the person served. Once you have a court date, notify the other party in writing and get a signed receipt of the notification. You’ll have to get someone to serve the notice in person. You can’t do it yourself. In many states, notification by certified mail is acceptable.
  7. Don’t wing it. Remember, this is a presentation, and making a good first impression counts. Practice what you’ll say.
  8. Keep it short. Just the facts, ma’am, as Sgt. Joe Friday would say. Judges hear dozens of cases a day, so brevity wins points.