How to Win in Small Claims Court

By | May 29, 2007

Most likely you’re not looking forward to your cameo in small claims court, and who could blame you? Long lines, little experience, bad blood, and shot nerves don’t exactly make for a leisurely trip to the courthouse. The following are some suggestions to help strengthen your case, and hopefully temper your frustrations:

1. Be on time, or be sorry. “On time” does not mean less than 10 minutes late, or five minutes late, actually, it means be early.

2. Be organized. It may sound like a no-brainer, but many a smart first-time small claims court comer has found himself tongue-tied and twisted when it was his turn to address the court. Organize the following two main areas carefully:

  • Your argument. An organized argument should sound like a well-told short essay. It should have a quick introduction, a body, an ending, and should preferably be told in chronological order. A good rule of thumb is to do as follows: tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you just told them.
  • The evidence. Make sure everything is signed and dated and bound in a neat fashion (i.e. stapled, paper-clipped, etc). You may also want to use a colored highlighter to draw attention to the portions of the evidence you think are most relevant to your case.
  • 3. Dress appropriately. Most judges consider themselves experts at sizing people up quickly. Anything you can do to help better present yourself is invaluable. Wear a suit if you have one. It doesn’t ensure that you’re going to win your case, but it definitely can’t hurt.

    4. Behave appropriately. Again, sounds like a no-brainer, but if you’ve ever seen Judge Judy or The People’s Court you know it’s easier said than done. Try to stick to your prepared argument and refrain from making personal attacks. This may help make you more sympathetic in the judge’s eyes. Also, be sure to refer to the judge as “Your Honor” each and every time you address the bench.

    5. Practice makes perfect. As many a writer knows, we all sound like geniuses when we’re sitting alone in the dark in front of our computer. Once you believe you’ve prepared a satisfactory argument, practice it repeatedly, and make sure to bounce it off of a friend. An objective person will be able to spot holes in your argument, and help you hone it in. Once they do, it’s important to be honest with yourself about your argument’s weaknesses. A willingness to deal with them will make your argument stronger.Also, because you don’t know how much time the judge will allot to your case, be sure to have your talking points memorized so that you can speak briefly, if necessary.

    6. Witness 101. Whenever possible, it is preferable to bring a live witness. (Bringing in dead witnesses seldom goes over well.) If you cannot bring a witness with you, be sure to bring a signed statement.

    7. Listen to your adversary’s argument. Though it may be painful, listening to your opponent’s argument will allow you to spot holes in what he/she’s saying, thus allowing you to use their own force against them like a trained Judo Master. You also need to make sure to listen to their allegations so that you can provide an explanation when it is your time to speak. Which brings us to #8.

    8. Wait your turn to speak. You’ve seen Judge Judy– there’s no quicker way to get on a judge’s bad side then to constantly be interrupting. Despite your fears, YOU WILL BE GIVEN AN OPPORTUNITY TO RESPOND, so do yourself a favor and wait patiently.

    9. Think before you speak. Once it’s out of your mouth, it’s in the court record. Don’t make the mistake of getting caught up in the drama of your opponent’s allegations and saying something you don’t mean. Instead, take a deep breath and then proceed with caution.

    10. Be more reasonable than the next guy. Conceding a point may lose you the battle, but ultimately help win you the war. Judges listen to people who are sure that they’re right all day. Being reasonable will help you stand out and perhaps help win the judge’s favor, and ultimately, your case.

    So are you ready to collect your propers? Get what’s due you? While we can’t assure that following the preceding ten steps will win your case, they will help you to conduct yourself in a way you can be proud of. So prepare yourself, and good luck!

    8 thoughts on “How to Win in Small Claims Court

    1. Judith

      Thanks for the advice. It seems sound. The best part, wishes for good luck are just what I need. Thanks again.

    2. George Schuitt

      The party that brings the TRUTH and the hard evidence to back that truth up wins the case.

    3. Heidi

      I won in SC Court due to this exact advice. My claim was regarding a car accident. The driver had no insurance and was not cited at the scene.
      I collected statements from the BMV hearing, (they found her guilty but cant help w damages)
      Had color pictures of the exact area including mock cars as a complete visual of what happened.
      Color pictures of the damages
      Had police records where she falsified having insurance thereby opening the door to her character.
      Provided 2 estimates
      Stayed calm
      Stated my case as it happened.
      Spoke only when asked a question.

    4. Angie

      Thanks! You’re advice has helped me several times. I won against an insurance company – auto claim. The truth always comes out – let the guilty party talk!

    5. Vonnie

      This is an excellent article. I see one area that was not addressed. When the defendant lies. I have seen this so often in civil court and if the person looks innocent and is a good liar, the judge believe it. How do you counter a witness (or the defendant) when they have just lied in their testimony.

    6. Rand

      Some tips that will help, dress sharp, if you don’t have a suit borrow one, dates, times, places, have it all. If you are wrong and have no paper trail try to settle with the other party, many people think they are automatically going to win because they are the plaintiff, I been brought to court twice by other people trying to sue me, I won both times. make sence, have a story that evolves, don’t jump all over the map on things. Show up early, in both my cases I was already there when the plaintiff walked up. Judges are smart, they know when you are wasting their time so again if you’re just bringing someone to court to prove a point you will not be sucessful. Good Luck.

    7. Ed

      Tutera’s statements are overly optimistic. Dealing with a lying plaintiff is difficult if you cannot prepare for their potential endless series of lies before hand. As defendant, you may not even know what you are accused of, you may only know he wants your money, but not know the exact reason.
      A plaintiff can easily get friends, family to sign false statements and present them as evidence, he can also shift the focus of the issue away from the real cause of the events.
      The judge can totally ignore any witness simply because he does’nt like the way they appear. You should fear getting a corrupt judge as much as having to face a lying opponent.
      For any truly complex small claims case, the judge will never take the time to sort it all out. This is why small claims courts are merely a facade for the real court you may need to appeal to.

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