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5 Mistakes to Avoid During a Small Claims Hearing

Camila Lopez - Preparing for Small Claims Court - July 9, 2024

Don't risk going to court unprepared.

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    Our team loves to watch small claims hearings, in fact, we watch hearings on a weekly basis. It's pretty cool that a real-life judge gets to decide cases between neighbors, roommates, and ex-best friends. We have made a list of the 5 worst mistakes people make during their small claims hearing. We also provide tips on how to avoid these mistakes!  

    Here is a summary:

    1. Do NOT interrupt the Judge.

    2. Do NOT interrupt the person you sued.

    3. Answer the question the Judge asked you.

    4. Be prepared.

    5. Do not talk back.

    Don't risk going to small claims court unprepared. Our Trial Presentation tool helps you create an opening statement, timeline, and organize your evidence for your small claims hearing. Get started building your trial presentation.

    If you have not filed your small claims lawsuit, review our 50-state guide to small claims court.

    Do NOT interrupt the Judge.

    Seem obvious? We do too, yet we see this mistake in most of the hearings we watch. While small claims may seem like Judge Judy's show, it is not. It is a formal proceeding with real-life judges or attorneys volunteering as judges (called "pro tem judges"). Many of these judges are used to "regular court" where attorneys are trained to be extremely respectful to the judge even when they are frustrated.

    Tips on how to avoid making this mistake:

    • Look at the judge when they are speaking. This way you will know when they are done speaking and don't accidentally interrupt them.

    • If the judge made a mistake and you would like to correct them, wait until they are done speaking then ask "Your Honor, would I be able to clarify something" or "Your Honor, just to make sure I understood you correctly..."

    • Feel like you will forget to include something if you don't say it right away? Write it down. Once the judge is done speaking, ask "Your Honor, may I add something important."

    Continue Learning: How to prepare for small claims court.

    Do NOT interrupt the person you sued.

    Look, you may not like the person you sued very much, but please do not make the mistake of interrupting them. Why? Because this will make the judge like you even less than you like the other person. The judge's job is to maintain order in the court and any interruptions will only make them think you are disrespectful.

    Tips on how to avoid making this mistake:

    • Wait until it is your turn to speak. Usually, the order of who gets to speak is (1) the person who sued, (2) the person being sued, and (3) the judge goes back to the person who sued for a response. If the judge does not provide you a chance to respond to what the other person said, ask "Your Honor, may I respond."

    • Write down your bullet points addressing their points as they speak. This way you won't forget what you wanted to include as the person you sued is explaining to the judge their side of the story.

    • Think the person you sued is lying to the judge? As they speak, look through your evidence that may prove they are lying. Have the page number ready to go so that when it is your turn to speak, you can tell the judge "Your Honor, I have evidence that rejects what the defendant just said, please turn to page 3 of my evidence."

    Answer the question the Judge asked you.

    This has to be one of our most painful mistakes to watch. Take it from the judge's perspective: most small claims courts schedule around 15 hearings during a 4 hour period that comes out to about 16 minutes per case. Do you think the judge wants to hear your whole life story? No, that is what your therapist is for. The judge is here to decide who is right and who is wrong under the law. They are going to ask you very specific questions to extract the information they need to decide your case.

    Tips on how to avoid making this mistake:

    • Listen carefully. If you are nervous, make sure you write down bullet points as the judge is speaking. This way once you are ready to respond, you can look at your bullet points and remember the judge's question.

    • Yes, there are exceptions where you need to add more backstory but first, answer the judge's question. For example, you would answer the judge's question then say, "Your Honor, may I provide you more context as our previous dealings are relevant to today's lawsuit."  

    • If the judge asks you a yes or no question but you need to add context, first respond with a yes or no. If the judge cuts you off, say "Your Honor, I understand you are looking for a yes or no, but would I be able to explain in more detail as it is relevant to your question.

    Be prepared.

    You would be surprised how many people show up to their hearing without evidence or with pieces of paper thrown in a folder. Remember, small claims hearings are meant to be quick and if you are not prepared, the judge will either close your case or ask you to come back at a different time. As the person suing, it is your job to prove you are correct and to do this, you need to be prepared.

    Tips on how to avoid making this mistake:

    • Use the our Trial Presentation tool. Yes, we know this is self-promotion but we built our platform to tackle this mistake. Through our website, you can upload your evidence, provide titles, dates, and descriptions. Our system will organize a judge-friendly trial presentation.

    • Take the time to look for your evidence. Many times this involves going through your phone pictures, emails, etc.

    • Think about what evidence the other person will bring. Make sure your evidence responds to any potential evidence they may have!

    Do not talk back.

    We wish we didn't have to list this one, but it happens very often. We know you may be frustrated with the person you sued or the person who sued you but remember you are in a formal proceeding and the judge may ask you to come back on another day if you cannot control yourself.

    Tips on how to avoid making this mistake:

    • Take a deep breath and listen to what is being said. You may be able to use the same words against them.

    • Write it down. Write your thoughts down and be prepared to respond when it is your turn to speak.

    Don't risk going to small claims court unprepared. Our Trial Presentation tool helps you create an opening statement, timeline, and organize your evidence for your small claims hearing. Get started building your trial presentation.

    Author

    Camila Lopez

    Legal Educator @ People Clerk. Camila holds a law degree and is a certified mediator. Her passion is breaking down complicated legal processes so that people without an attorney can get justice.

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