The time has finally come. The clerk calls your case.
Nervous, but full of righteous indignation, you walk up to the podium
to stand by the plaintiff's placard.
- Wait your turn: If you are a person who always interrupts
people in conversation, practice keeping silent. Speak when spoken to
by the judge or given leave by the court. If you don't understand
something speak up, but only when it's your turn. There is nothing more
irritating to a judge than having someone constantly interrupting the
other party or worse the judge him or herself. You run the risk of
angering the judge who will likely miss some key points of your
evidence. Also always allow the witnesses to finish speaking. Don't cut
them off as you may lose information useful to your case.
- Don't argue: You should never engage in debate or make
disparaging comments regarding your opponent. Again you run the risk of
angering the judge and having your evidence lost under the chastisement
of the court. If your opponent tries to bait you, ignore it. Your
professional demeanor will win points with the judge and he or she will
likely be more receptive to your presentation.
- Respect: It is important to show respect for the court and
the participants of the hearing. While Small Claims Court is considered
to be an informal proceeding it is still a legal proceeding. This means
that you address the judge as "your honor." Use first and last names
for both the witnesses and your opponent. While you are not required to
wear a suit, dress appropriately in conservative business attire to
show respect for the court. Don't wear jeans, shorts, torn or flashy
- Be prepared: Make a chronological outline of the facts
supporting your case. Under each fact reference the law or case if on
point that supports your position for easy reference. Bullet-point the
facts and how they fulfill each elements of the law to support your
case. List each document that supports that fact. Make a list of
your witnesses. Under each witness write out the questions you
want to ask in court that will prove your case. Your hearing is
not the time for an improptu Perry Mason style. Have a section
titled defendant's witnesses. Have a list of questions you may
want to ask the other side if you have the opportunity to cross-examine
that will bring out facts that will support your case.
Have all your evidence in an organized manner. A useful
technique is to tab all documents you intend to introduce at the
hearing for easy reference to hand to the judge without having to
shuffle through all your papers. Always have three copies: One for the
judge, defendant and yourself. Keep your originals unless specifically
requested by the judge.
- Speak clearly and slowly: Before you begin to speak take a
deep breath. It is better to be thought a fool than to open your mouth
and confirm you are indeed one. Speak slowly. If you find yourself
starting to speed up because you are nervous or normally a fast
speaker, pause. Allow yourself to regroup. When a person talks quickly,
the mouth and the brain don't always work at the same speed. Make sure
you are clearly expressing your ideas and thoughts as you have prepared
them in a logical, understandable manner. Don't get ahead of yourself
in your haste to get through it.
Enunciate your words, particularly if you, the judge or a
witness has an accent. You want to make sure your actual words are
heard. Maintain an appropriate volume. Don't speak too softly or too
loudly or your words may be lost.
- Be Concise: You have a limited time to present your case.
The judge has a lot of other cases to hear. So if you have evidence,
get to the point quickly. Make a succinct presentation limited to the
relevant facts and supporting evidence. If there are aggravating
factors, describe them. Once you've made your point, move on. Don't
repeat or restate your arguments. As long as your presentation is
logical and follows a clear line, the judge should be able to follow
- Stick to the facts: Small Claims Court was designed
specifically to eliminate the need for attorneys in small cases.
Therefore the judge knows the law. Focus on the facts. Given them in a
clear manner that underlines the elements of the relevant law so it is
easy for the judge to see you are right. Don't waste the judge's time
with emotions and moral rights.
- Know the defendant's case: There are always two sides to
every argument. Don't let your emotions and moral indignation cloud
your judgment. Look at the airline's position. What arguments will the
defendant make? What evidence and witnesses will be presented? It is
important to take an objective look at the case to anticipate the
defendant's arguments to be able to counter them and lead the judge
back to your side.
- Witnesses: If you plan to call witnesses, other than
hostile witnesses, confirm that they know when and where the hearing
will be. You should also consider serving them with a subpoena even if
the witness has agreed to voluntarily appear. If you don't subpoena a
witness and the witness does not appear at the hearing, the judge will
require you to have the trial without that witness. The judge will not
let you come back later with more witnesses or more papers after the
To subpoena a witness you will need to file the subpoena in the
Small Claims Division of the clerk's office at least 10 days before
trial (the number of days may vary in your jurisdiction) so that the
witness can receive the subpoena at least five days before the hearing
as required by law. If the witness doesn't receive the subpoena within
the specified time it will be deemed invalid and the witness doesn't
have to appear. You must provide the name and current home address of
the prospective witness.
The subpoena must be served by the sheriff or court-approved
disinterested adult as set forth in the local rule. Keep in mind,
however, like defendants, you can't subpoena a witness and force the
witness to testify who has no contacts and is not properly served
within the state. Also keep in mind that you must pay the witness a
mandated fee to appear if the witness does not appear voluntarily. This
amount will vary from state-to-state but is generally between $10 to
- Record of the proceeding: If you think you may want to
appeal the decision if it is not in your favor you will need to make
arrangements to have a court reporter at the hearing. Notify the court
clerk no less than 24 hours before the hearing date. You want to give
the clerk sufficient time to make arrangements to have a court reporter
available as they are not common at Small Claims Court proceedings.