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All You Need to Know to Prepare for Small Claims Court

Camila Lopez - Preparing for Small Claims Court - May 23, 2024

Don't risk going to court unprepared.

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    The secret to presenting your strongest case before a Judge in small claims court is simple:  BE PREPARED.  Think of every courtroom TV show you have seen and remember how angry Judges get when people show up unprepared.  Let’s face it, you never want to face an angry Judge. That’s why you need to prepare your presentation for the small claims hearing. 

    In this article, we help you prepare for your small claims hearing by teaching you how to create a presentation for your small claims hearing. 

    If you were sued in small claims court, refer to our how to prepare for small claims court as a defendant article. 

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

    What is a Trial Presentation?

    When preparing for small claims court, you will want to create a trial presentation. 

    A trial presentation is a document you will take to court with you to help you present your strongest case before a Judge.  This presentation will be a visual designed to present your evidence, argument, and analysis in a way that the Judge will understand. You should always have a copy for yourself, one for the Judge, and one for the other side (defendant).

    Lawyers like myself and top engineers have created a tool to help you build a trial presentation for small claims court. As far as we know, it is the only trial presentation software designed for people who are representing themselves at the small claims hearing. As you review this article, we will teach you how to prepare for small claims court by building your trial presentation. Don’t risk going to court unprepared. Get started building your trial presentation.

    Learn about Trial Presentations:

    Why is it Important to use a Trial Presentation?

    Every lawyer who wins in court uses a trial presentation. There are 6 important reasons to prepare a trial presentation: 

    1. It is important to be prepared to present quickly by being organized.  Small claims hearings tend to be very quick (around 10 to 15 minutes) and you will not have much time to present. By having a trial presentation prepared, you can quickly go through your presentation and find the relevant information you are looking for. 

    2. By being prepared, you decrease your chances of missing key evidence in your case. In some states like California, the person who sued has no right to appeal. This means that if you lose at the small claims hearing because you forgot to include a key piece of evidence you don’t get a second chance at presenting your case. 

    3. You want to be as persuasive as possible when you’re in court before a Judge. A well-organized trial presentation will help you present your evidence in a way that highlights the strength of your case.

    4. Preparing your trial presentation, not only will help you present your evidence effectively, but it will also assist you in organizing your thoughts and arguments. With a well-structured outline and highlighting key points, you can ensure that you cover all the important information in a logical and easy-to-follow way.

    5. When you’re in court, it’s important to come across as credible. With a well-organized trial presentation, you can showcase your evidence professionally which improves your credibility.

    6. A trial presentation can make the Judge more engaged and focused. By using visual aids, such as graphs, tables, and photographs, you can capture the Judge’s attention and help them to better understand your argument. These visuals bring your case to life and make it easier for the Judge to follow along.

    Learn how to go to small claims court prepared to win:

    What should be included in a Trial Presentation?

    You should include the following 4 sections in your trial presentation: 

    1. An opening statement outlining why you are suing and how much you should win. 

    2. A case timeline with all the relevant evidence needed to prove each element of your claim plus any additional relevant evidence. 

    3. Calculate your damages and recoverable costs. 

    4. Copies of all your documents filed with the court.

    In the next sections, we will cover each of these.

    1. Opening Statement to Summarize Your Case

    The beginning of your trial presentation is crucial. It all starts with a brief and concise opening statement that sets the stage for your case. An opening statement introduces the Judge to the important facts in your case. It’s your chance to clearly state what you seek from the Judge.

    When crafting your opening statement, remember that it shapes the impression of your entire case. You want to convey confidence, organization, and preparedness. Keep it concise, focusing on the key facts that support your argument. Avoid overwhelming the Judge with unnecessary details and emotional arguments.  Focus on just the facts.

    To create an opening statement: 

    1. Go to our Trial Presentation Tool

    2. Select the type of legal issue you have. 

    3. You will be guided with out our tool to build an effective opening statement. 


    Further Learning: 5 Mistakes to Avoid During a Small Claims Hearing

    2. Timeline of What Happened and Upload Evidence 

    On the Case Timeline section of our Trial Presentation tool, you will be able to prepare for your small claims hearing by creating a case timeline that explains the details of what happened in the order the events happened and include evidence for each date.  

    This chronological timeline of the events and evidence in your case is a valuable asset that helps the Judge follow the events leading up to your case. 

    You should include all events that are relevant to the dispute

    An event is relevant if:

    1. it's something that happened between you and the other party OR

    2. something that happened to you as a result of your dispute with the other party.

    To add an event to your case timeline: 

    1. Click on the “Add Event” button, 

    2. Include the date the event happened, 

    3. Provide a short description of what happened,

    4. Upload any evidence to support this event, and

    5. Your case timeline will be automatically created along with a table of contents. 

    For the dates of each event: 

    • Generally, don’t add the date you uploaded the evidence to your account but the most relevant date for the evidence you are uploading. 

    • For lawsuits where a contract is involved, you should create two events (1)  the date the contract was signed and (2) the date the contract was broken.  

    • If you’re uploading text message conversations, most of our clients add the date the text message was received or sent (take screenshots on your phone of the relevant text messages). 

    • If you have pictures as evidence, the most relevant date is the date the picture was taken.

    For audio or video evidence, you will be prompted to include the URL of the recording (to obtain a URL you will need to upload the video/audio file to a website like Youtube that allows you to have a direct link to view/listen to it). The link to the video will be provided as a note in your trial presentation. 

    For each document that you upload as evidence, our tool will add page numbers to the corresponding location in your trial presentation. 

    Our tool will also automatically create a table of contents and add each piece of evidence to the table of contents. This way, the Judge can easily navigate to the relevant evidence they are looking for. 

    By visually organizing the events surrounding your case on a timeline, you can demonstrate when crucial facts occurred and how they connect. Doing this gives the Judge a deeper understanding of your case’s context and empowers them to make an informed decision.

    Here are some common types of evidence we see: 

    • Text messages

    • Emails

    • Pictures

    • Videos

    • Receipts

    • Contracts

    The most convincing part of any trial presentation is being able to present the evidence that proves that what you state at the hearing actually happened.  You should include copies of all the evidence supporting your case in your trial presentation. From documents and text messages to emails, photographs, and videos, leave no stone unturned in presenting the full picture.

    Also, ensure that each piece of evidence is clearly labeled (e.g. Email where Defendant agreed to repay the Loan). Our Trial Presentation tool will organize your evidence logically and chronologically so the Judge can easily navigate each piece.  

    Note, some judges may refer to your evidence as exhibits. Our tool will label your exhibits for you. 

    3. Calculate Your Damages and Costs

    To prepare for your small claims case, you should also determine how much money you have lost plus any additional penalties the law imposes. This is known as your damages. 

    To calculate your damages: 

    • create a list of all the amounts you are owed and add them. 

    • Refer to the lawsuit you filed as some small claims forms require that you list how you calculated the amount you sued for. 

    • To determine if there are any penalties the law imposes for your type of case, you will want to research “punitive damages” or “statutory damages” + the type of lawsuit you have (for example, security deposit punitive damages). 

    For example, if you are suing your landlord over not returning your security deposit, your damages would be the amount of your security deposit plus any additional penalties that the law allows (certain states allow you to sue for more than your security deposit). Learn more in our 50-State guide to getting your security deposit back. For example, if you sue your landlord in California small claims for failing to return your security deposit, you could sue for three times the amount of your security deposit if your landlord acted in “bad faith”

    In addition to calculating your damages, you should also calculate how much money you spent related to filing your case. In some states, small claims court judges require the person you sue to reimburse you for costs related to filing your case. To calculate costs, refer to any receipts you have like your filing fee receipt and serving costs. 

    To add costs to your trial presentation: 

    1. Look for any receipts you have related to taking the person you sued to small claims court.

    2. Add the type of cost, the amount, and evidence of the cost like a receipt. 

    3. If you have more than one receipt, continue to select “Add recoverable cost”.

    4. Our trial presentation tool will add all the costs for you and include each receipt as evidence with page numbers. 

    4. Show that You have Followed all Necessary Court Procedures 

    The next step in preparing for your small claims court hearing is to include copies of all documents related to court procedures (your lawsuit, proof that you have served your lawsuit, any additional filings in your case, demand letter, etc) in our Trial Presentation tool. Your court documents will be included in a separate section of your trial presentation. 

    This step is important to ensure that you have followed all necessary court procedures.

    Check Your Local Court Rules

    At least 30 days before your hearing, review any local court rules. Different courts might have different rules about evidence. Some courts ask you to send your evidence before the hearing; others have you bring your evidence with you to the hearing. It’s important to know what your court requires. Most of the time, court requirements will be mailed to you or attached to the filed lawsuit. If you don’t receive any, call the court. 

    For example, if your case is filed in a Los Angeles small claims court, there is a requirement that you submit your evidence to the small claims court where you filed your lawsuit by mail at least 10 days before the hearing (the court also requires that you send a copy to the other party). If you or the other party miss this step, the court may reschedule your hearing.  

    If your court does not require you to send your evidence before the hearing, print 3 copies of your documents– a copy for the judge, the other party, and yourself (if you used our Trial Presentation tool, download and print 3 copies). 

    Don’t risk going to court unprepared. 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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