Small Claims Court Hearings
I spent some time in small claims court the other day on a minor collections matter. The county where I attended had all the people with cases in one courtroom and the magistrate heard everybody one case at a time. Therefore, I was able to see a few cases in front of the magistrate. I jotted down a few notes on some of the mistakes that the people made at their hearing.
First, don’t think that just because she is not wearing a black robe or isn’t a “real” judge that the magistrate doesn’t deserve respect. I saw the people reacting and overreacting to statements the other side made with loud sighs, eye rolls, hands in the air and head shakes. I saw people point to the other party and make accusations like “you know you said it!” This did not help these people’s case at all and could have unconsciously biased the magistrate against them. The magistrate will give each party time to state their case and make final arguments. Do not feel the need to interrupt or get your point across without words while the other side is talking or presenting their case. Also, dress appropriately. The magistrate doesn’t expect people in this day and age to wear a suit (unless you are an attorney), but frayed work-jeans, baseball cap, and your favorite heavy metal tour T-shirt does not help you. If you do not show the magistrate that you respect her and take her seriously, why should she respect you and take your claims seriously?
Second, take a pad and a pen with you. I could tell (from the previously mentioned head-shakes that the magistrate tried to ignore) that one person had many more problems with the testimony of the other side than he gave when finally allowed to speak. When that time came though, he had no notes and had forgotten all the points he wanted to make.
Third, know what you are going to say. Rehearse at home before you come in. If you are worried you might forget something, you can take in notes on what you need to tell the Magistrate. (It is more effective if you don’t read them word for word).
Fourth, bring witnesses if you need them. Even with relaxed Rules of Evidence, a Magistrate is not going to consider hearsay. Hearsay is simply your statement to the Magistrate that somebody else said something. The Court wants to hear directly from that “somebody else,” not what you say he said. The major exception is you can say what the other party told you.
Fifth, have your proof. If you have documents that show your case, bring them in. The Plaintiff, the person bringing the claim, is the one that is supposed to prove he is right and should recover money or whatever from the other person, the Defendant. If the Plaintiff doesn’t satisfy this “burden of proof” then they lose. I saw one person lose their case because they didn’t bring their documents to prove their claim, and that was in a case where the other side didn’t even show up!
–Bradley A. Coxe is a practicing attorney in Wilmington, NC who specializes in Personal Injury, Medical Malpractice, Contract and Real Estate disputes and all forms of Civil Litigation. Please contact him at (910) 772-1678.