Represent Yourself in Small Claims Court

Represent Yourself in Small Claims Court

“Anyone who represents themselves in court has a fool for a client and an idiot for a lawyer!” 

The Courthouse is a pretty intimidating place for someone not familiar with it.  Police in uniform, lawyers in business suits, and judges in dark robes mingle and converse in legal code words that sometimes don’t seem to mean what your Dictionary says they mean.  Running a lawsuit is difficult enough for lawyers, it is much more so for a non-lawyer who wants to represent themselves.  It is like managing a Japanese baseball team where you don’t speak the language or even know what the rules of the game are. 

There is one type of Courtroom in North Carolina that is designed to be user-friendly, Magistrate’s Court or Small Claims Court.  This courtroom operates similar to the “People’s Court” type realty television shows that you might have seen.  As long as what you are asking for is $5000 or less, you can participate in Magistrate’s Court.  Every county in North Carolina has its own Magistrate Court.  Ask the Clerk of Court in the courthouse where the person you are suing lives, for a Magistrate Court Summons and Complaint.  You can fill out the form, listing the name and address of the other party; how much you are seeking; and what type of claim you have.   The clerk will then have you serve the Summons by the sheriff or certified mail, return receipt requested, and will schedule a hearing date for you, usually within 30 days.

On the day of the hearing, you and the other side will sit in front of the judge, called a Magistrate.  There is no jury.  While Magistrate’s Court is designed to operate without lawyers, you may bring a lawyer if you want.    At the hearing, you (the “Plaintiff”) will tell the Magistrate what your claim is and how much or what you should get.  The other side, (the “Defendant”) then gets tell or show why he shouldn’t have to pay you any money or do anything.  It is important to have with you any materials you have that will help you prove your case including things like receipts, photographs, letters, canceled checks, and contracts.  Usually though, the Magistrate can’t consider what somebody other than the Defendant may have told you.  This is called “hearsay.”   Those people who have that information have to tell it directly to the Magistrate.  It is best to have a witness who is willing to help you, but if not, you can force the witness to come to court by having the sheriff deliver a subpoena.

Usually, after the Magistrate has heard both sides and reviewed the documents, he will make his decision, either at the time or within 10 days.  After the decision is made, either side has 10 days to appeal the matter to the North Carolina District Court.  The entire matter starts over again in the District Court.  You must present your evidence and testimony again before a Judge and/or a Jury.  This is a much more time-consuming and formal process and you should seriously consider retaining an attorney. 

For more information on Small Claims Court and copies of the forms needed, Legal Aid of North Carolina, Inc. has an excellent booklet entitled “A Guide to Small Claims Court.”  You can contact them at www.legalaidnc.org or (919) 856-2564.