How To Not Suck… At Going To Small Claims Court

There are times when you can’t convince a business to do the right thing. Or a dispute with your neighbor won’t come to a close. Or, well, stuff happens. When you try to reach an agreement with another party but you just can’t work it out, you might choose to let a judge decide.

In that spirit: Hear ye! Hear ye! Here’s how to not suck at your day in small claims court.

Plan For the Worst First
When you make a purchase or sign on for a service, you never expect for things to go wrong. But they do.

Enter the journal. Or the notebook. Or any place of permanence you can keep and maintain detailed records of all your contact with a company.

You need a place to keep a log of all your contact with a company — and scribbling on a receipt isn’t good enough. Instead, you should take copious notes.

If you have to make a call to the company on any dissatisfaction, write it down. Maybe you’ll only need to make one call and your issue will be resolved, but it’s very possible you’ll have a dispute that goes on for months, or longer.

Log the date and time you call, who you talked to and what they suggested to you, or promised to you. If the CSR was rude, that’s not really important (however annoying). What matters is the good old who, what, where, why and how of it all.

Every detail and fact counts.

If you ever need to take the company to court, you can use this log as evidence — and as a reminder to you — of how everything went down.

Pick the right court
If your dispute with a company can’t be solved amicably, court may be your only option.

You just need to pick the right one.

If you don’t file in the correct court, you could face delays, and you don’t want that. For example, some small claims courts only allow a certain dollar figure to be disputed. If the amount you say you’re owed is more, you may need to file in a superior court.
To see what your state allows, check’s handy list of the limits of courts in different states.

The Paperwork
Every court has its own set of paperwork that needs to be completed before you go before a judge. Read the directions. Take your time. And do it right, otherwise it will be bounced back to you and you’ll have to start from scratch.

Know Your Case
Think of your time before the judge as an oral exam. Know your facts. Stick to the facts. Be brief, and be organized.
And don’t expect the person you’ve taken to court to make it easy for you (like this guy). Be prepared to offer a counter-argument if the person or business you’re suing presents allegations against you.

Present Yourself
It’s not a fashion show, and you won’t be expected to look like a $500 per hour attorney, but show the court some respect. Business-wear is best. Business casual comes in second. But really, if you’re fighting for your money, you can leave the jeans, sneakers and concert t-shirts at home, right?
And please, be sure to show up on time, lest you want to be glitter-bombed like a Lohan.

Remember The Evidence
Make sure to bring copies of all relevant documents. This would include contracts, your journal of contact with the company, cancelled checks, photos of damage or items that are in dispute, and if the actual item in dispute isn’t too large, bring it.

Also think about bringing witnesses. We don’t mean your grandma or your first grade teacher who are willing to vouch for you personally, but think about bringing anyone who physically saw or experienced the situation that brought you to court in the first place.

And it helps to know what your witnesses will say before they say it.

Watch, and then Practice
Small claims court isn’t like anything you’ve seen on television. It’s not Judge Judy, and it sure as heck isn’t Law & Order. And it’s certainly not A Few Good Men.

You’ll be lucky if you get 10 minutes to tell your tale, so drama will be kept to a minimum.

Spend a few hours at the court where you plan to present your argument. You’ll get a feel for what the judge expects and how the courtroom is run. It will make you much more comfortable when it’s your day.

Before your date, practice your argument in front of friends or family. Have them ask you the kinds of pointed questions a judge is likely to ask, and then you can present your side.

Remember to stick to the facts and not your feelings. And practice makes perfect, for sure.

If You Win
Don’t expect your adversary to whip out a checkbook and pay what the judge says he should.

You’ll have a judgment against the company or individual, but collecting is a whole other story. Ah yes, a future HTNS…

And we couldn’t post this story without sharing this one:

Thanks to reader Sandy Lundy of The Legal Consumer for suggesting this story!

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You can read Karin Price Mueller’s stories for The Star-Ledger at, follow her on Facebook, and on Twitter @kpmueller.

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