What is a Small Claims Trial
So you've filed an answer in your small claims case and the next step is your small claims trial. Sometimes this is called an “evidentiary hearing” or a “prove up hearing.” These are terms used to describe what most people call a “trial.” Many people are very nervous about this step in the process, and are worried about how to act or handle the trial. These feelings are normal – a small claims trial is no laughing matter. It's the opportunity for you to present your case (and defend your case, if you've been sued) to the court. A little preparation can go a long way. While there are entire books written about getting ready for trial, here are a few tips. We offer free online scheduling for appointments. about this process.
What to Wear to Small Claims Court
Dress with dignity and respect for the court – which means you should not over-dress or under-dress. There's no need to wear a suit; slacks with dress shirt/blouse are sufficient. If you don't own slacks, wear your darkest and cleanest jeans. If you don't own a dress shirt or a blouse, wear a shirt without logos or writing. And never (ever) wear a shirt with profanity or other offensive language. The key is to dress in a manner that shows the court you respect it's authority. Some people as if they should wear a suit. While wearing a suit isn't wrong, you don't need to go buy any special clothes for court. If you dress respectfully, you will be just fine.
How to Act in Small Claims Court
The same key goes for how to act in court – just act respectfully. When you speak respectfully to the court (and to the other party and witnesses in the case), you will earn the respect of the judge. After all, no one likes a rude and disrespectful person. Remember to speak politely, refrain from yelling, and never utter any profanity. Swearing is never acceptable in court.
What Do I call the Judge in Small Claims Court?
This is a great question. In Wisconsin there are two types of “judges” that handle small claims cases. Some of these judges are called “commissioners,” and others are elected “judges.” If you're in front of a court commissioner, you should call that person “Commissioner.” If they're an elected judge, make sure you call them “Judge.” And if you're not sure what to call them, just call them “Your Honor.” You can't go wrong with this phrase – because it shows honor and respect. Never raise your voice or speak angrily – it's the fastest way to get in trouble with the judge!
Should I bring Evidence with me to Small Claims Court?
If your case is scheduled for trial, you MUST bring your evidence with you. If you have documents you want the court to consider, you need to bring 4 copies – one for the judge, one to give the other party, one for you to use, and a spare copy. Make the copies ahead of time and staple each set; that way you don't get nervous and have a messy pile of papers while at trial.
Should I Bring Witnesses to Trial?
If your case is scheduled for a trial, you MUST bring the witnesses with you. If you don't have the witnesses there, the Court cannot (and will not) be able to consider the testimony of the witnesses.
How to Present Evidence at Trial
This is the hardest part of a trial; how to present evidence. Let's say you have a document that you want the court to consider. You can't just give the document to the judge and expect that to work. You need a person to establish something called “foundation” for the judge – laying the groundwork to show what the document is, where it came from, and that the witness has personal knowledge of the document. All this sounds SO confusing, so here's a simple explanation of how this works in real life. Let's say you have a letter from your landlord that you want to introduce into evidence. Here's how it goes:
You: Landlord, I'm going to hand you a document labeled “Exhibit 1.” Do you recognize this document?
You: This is a letter you sent to the tenants on 123 Main Street, stating you were going change all the locks on our doors unless we paid you $200 each, correct?
You: Your Honor, I move that exhibit 1 be admitted into evidence.
When you have exhibits to use, it's worth asking the court how they want you to label the exhibits. Sometimes courts have a specific way they want you to label things. Just ask the court; they'll be thrilled that you want to be organized. Being organized is one of the keys to winning!
How to Question a Witness
Ever hear of the expression “KISS” from the United States Navy? It stands for “keep it simple, stupid.” Simple questions are always better. Here are some tips on how to KISS it in court:
- Speak slowly
You're going to be really (REALLY) nervous in court. Speak slower than you feel is necessary; trust us when we say that while it may feel slow, it'll be just the right speed.
- Speak loud and clear
When we're nervous, our voices can go down to a whisper. Speak clearly into the microphones present, and make sure the judge can hear you. No need to shout, but just make sure everyone can hear you.
- Pretend you're interviewing a person on TV
Ask questions that establish the “five w's” = the who, what, when, where, and how. Your goal is to politely and nicely explain what happened, and your position, by asking questions. And keep the questions to “one fact” at a time. If you ask a long and aggressive question, you will get a long and off-topic response.
- Don't argue with the Witness
Don't get into a shouting match with the witness. First, you'll annoy the judge and get in trouble. Second, you will feel rattled and get off topic. Always keep your goal in mind: laying out your position on the case and winning.
- Write out your Questions
You are allowed to bring your notes to court. Good lawyers often write out their questions for witnesses, and read them word for word. Yes, you read that correctly – even great lawyers read their questions to witnesses. So take a page from the experts and do the same. Take advantage of your calmer nerves ahead of time, and write out those questions. You can even do this while creating an outline of what you want to say to the judge.
How to Win in Small Claims Court
Wouldn't it be nice if there was a recipe to guarantee that you'd win your case? While there is no recipe, preparation certainly helps. If you are still unsure about handling your case, call for a free consultation. Attorney Nathan DeLadurantey has represented Wisconsinites in counties all over the state. We offer free online scheduling for appointments.
We provide representation in debt defense and collection cases in Wisconsin, including Racine, Kenosha, Green Bay, Appleton, the Fox Valley, Milwaukee, West Allis, Waukesha, Walworth County, Dane County, Madison, La Crosse, Eau Claire, Superior, Ashland, and anywhere in-between.