What is a Small Claims Court Hearing like?
Updated: Jun 5
Want to know what to expect at a small claims court hearing? Look no further. In this article, we provide an overview of what a typical small claims court hearing is like in California.
Small Claims Court in General
In California, small claims courts were set up as a quick and efficient forum to resolve disputes. An individual or sole proprietor can sue for $10,000 or less and a corporation or LLC can sue for $5,000 or less.
When will the hearing be?
Once the lawsuit is filed, the hearing will be scheduled within 20- 70 days.
You must serve the small claims lawsuit on the person you sued (the "defendant") at least 15 days before the hearing if the defendant lives or resides in the county you are suing in. If the defendant resides outside of the county you are suing in, you must serve them at least 20 days before the hearing. If you run out of time to serve, you can submit a request to reschedule your hearing date.
How to prepare for a Small Claims Court Hearing?
To prepare for your small claims court hearing:
Research the law. If you are unsure about your case, conduct research about the law. You can also consult an attorney.
Prepare your evidence. Invoices, contracts, receipts, etc. You want to have your evidence organized with titles, dates, and why that piece of evidence is important. All your evidence should be geared towards showing the judge why you are correct.
Prepare what to say. During the hearing, the judge will ask the person suing why they are suing. The judge will then turn to the person that is being sued, why they should win the case.
Get your receipts for costs ready. For example, any filing fees and any process server costs. Make sure to let the judge know that you would like to be reimbursed for costs. Generally, whoever wins the case can be reimbursed for "reasonable costs."
Print enough copies of all your evidence. You will need at least three copies (one for you, one for the judge, one for the other side).
On the hearing day, you want to give yourself plenty of time to arrive at the courthouse, go through security, and find the courtroom. You don't want to be late!
Once you are in the courtroom
Once the courtroom is opened, the court clerk, sheriff, and judge will go through what to expect. You will be sitting in a room with other people who have filed small claims cases. You will get to watch the cases scheduled before your case.
If both parties show up:
Right before the hearing, the judge will ask the parties to show each other the evidence that they have brought with them.
The Judge will ask the person who is suing why they are suing.
The Judge will then turn to the person being sued and ask them to present their side of the story.
The hearing will last around 15 minutes.
The judge will ask the parties to show the judge the evidence they brought with them. Sometimes the judge will keep the evidence other times you will get the evidence right back.
Very rarely will a judge tell the parties their decision immediately after the hearing. Instead, the judge will tell the parties that the decision will be mailed to them (usually takes a few weeks to two months or so).
If only the plaintiff shows up:
The plaintiff (the person who is suing) has to still prove their case. The plaintiff will have to tell the judge why they are suing and provide enough evidence.
Sometimes the judge will tell the plaintiff if they won right away. Other times, the judge will tell the plaintiff that the decision will be mailed to them.
If only the defendant shows up:
Very often, the case gets dismissed (closed) without prejudice (meaning that the plaintiff can still file the case again later on.) You can also ask the judge to dismiss the case with prejudice (meaning that the plaintiff may NOT be able to file the case again) in certain circumstances.
Are attorneys allowed in small claims court?
Attorneys are not allowed to represent parties at the initial hearing. If the defendant appeals the case, then attorneys are allowed to represent the parties at the appeal hearing.
Said differently, you will not be able to hire a lawyer to represent you at the initial small claims court hearing.
Small Claims Mediation
Some small claims courts in California, offer free mediation for small claims court cases.
What is mediation? Mediation is a meeting between both the plaintiff (the person suing) and the defendant (the person being sued) conducted by a neutral third-party (a mediator). The parties will meet with a mediator, discuss their case, and try to reach a mutually beneficial solution. Both parties must agree to mediation and it cannot be forced on them.
When will mediation occur? The court clerk, judge, or sheriff will announce if there are mediators available that day. Usually, the judge will tell the audience that if you opt for mediation, you can try to mediate the case while other hearings are being conducted. If you finish mediation early, then you get to "skip the line" and your case is processed faster.
People Clerk is here to help you throughout the Small Claims Court Process.
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