Preparing for Your Day In Court

PREPARING FOR YOUR TRIAL

Once you have filed or been served with a Small Claims case, you should immediately begin to prepare your case for trial.   Write down a clear and concise statement of your claim or your defense. This statement will help you to clarify the facts of your claim or to defend the claim.  

Compare your memory of events to any documents or other evidence you may have that support your memory of the events and what each party said.  Check, verify and be able to document all relevant dates and events.

Next, gather all documentation and anything else which supports your claim or defends against the claim: (1) records, (2) receipts, (3) canceled checks or money orders, (4) copies of contracts or other written agreements, (5) photos and videos, (6) invoices, (7) estimates of damages and any other items directly related to the case which will help you establish the facts of your story. If there is any doubt, bring it to Court.  

        For example:  Don't forget to bring the subject matter of your claim (within reason). If  you say the dry cleaner ruined your favorite coat, bring the coat. If there is unrepaired damage to your car, drive your car to the Courthouse.

Any and all documents, exhibits and other evidence become part of the Court record of the trial.  They cannot be returned.  If you want to keep the original documents, bring both the original and two copies.  If the Judge is satisfied as to the authenticity of the copies, the copies may be identified and made part of the Court record in place of the original documents.  

How best to present exhibits and evidence at trial

Photographs should be printed on real photo quality paper (either 4x6 or 5x7) rather than on regular photocopy paper or stationary. For the best quality, you may want to have your photos printed commercially (for example, at a local pharmacy or other store) rather than using your home printer.

If you have text messages, emails or other electronic communications that you believe are important to your case, you must print these out and have them ready for the Judge.  But also bring the necessary electronic device as this will help you to authenticate the photos, emails or text messages.  

Showing the Judge your photos, videos, emails or text messages only on your phone, tablet, computer or other electronic device is not helpful.  Remember, evidence and exhibits become part of the Court records and cannot be returned.

If you want to show the Judge a video, you must save the video onto a DVD or other portable storage medium. Also, bring a device with you to be able to play the video in Court during the trial so everyone, including all parties and the Judge, can watch and hear the video at the same time. The DVD or other portable storage medium will become part of the Court record.

Getting your witnesses to come to the trial

Are there are any witnesses who have firsthand knowledge about your claim and your dispute with the other party?  People who only know what someone else told them (hearsay) will not be as helpful to your case. Try to get witnesses who know relevant facts because they were there and heard what was said or who actually saw what happened.

The value of witnesses' testimony depends upon the information they have, their expertise, the presence of bias or lack of bias. The testimony of persons who might be biased, such as relatives or people who benefit if you win the case, may not be given as much weight as the testimony of a neutral, disinterested person. But their information may still be helpful to you.

Examples of other people you may to call or subpoena as witnesses are:  (1) the police officer who responded to the scene of the crash, (2) the mechanic who fixed your car, (3) the veterinarian who treated your animal, (4) the workers who made repairs to your house. Think of anyone and everyone who has information and knowledge to help you prove or defend your case.

Once you have determined who your witnesses are, contact them and ask them to relate the story to you as they would before the Judge so that you will not be surprised by their testimony once you get to Court. If you feel the witnesses will help prove your case, ask them if they will come to Court and tell the Judge what they know about your claim or your defense.

If a witness does not want to appear and testify voluntarily, you may ask the Clerk to issue a subpoena ordering the witness to appear at the trial. You should subpoena your witnesses as soon as you are assigned your trial date. Just as when you needed the Defendant’s address to serve your Notice of Claim on the Defendant, you must also provide the Clerk with the correct address for any witness you want served with a subpoena.  

Getting your witnesses to come to Court and gathering all the needed exhibits, documents, evidence and papers is your responsibility. Bring anything and everything you think might be helpful in proving or defending your case.   

DAY OF TRIAL

Arrive on time on the day of your trial.  If both parties appear, the trial will be held in an informal, yet orderly manner.  The Judge may have you stand in front of the bench or may have you sit at the tables.

The Plaintiff and the Defendant may want to talk about the case before you go in front of the Judge to see if you can work out a compromise or an agreement.   If you do to trial, the Plaintiff may not get everything requested and the Defendant may not get everything requested.  If you can reach an  agreement, here are some forms for you to put that agreement in writing.  Then you will just give the written agreement to the Judge and you will be done.

You also might want to consider reaching a payment agreement where no judgment is entered.   This might be helpful for the Defendant if a judgment is not entered against him/her but the Plaintiff still has a method of obtaining payment. 

Agreed Judgment
Payment Agreement and Agreement to Withhold or Defer Judgment

The Plaintiff will present his/her case first. The Plaintiff may do this by testifying on his/her own behalf and also by having other witnesses testify. The Defendant may not interrupt or say anything at all while the Plaintiff is presenting his/her case.  

Exhibits and other evidence such as receipts, written leases, photographs or other items to support the Plaintiff’s claim for damages may be shown to the Judge. The Defendant will have the opportunity to review all the exhibits and evidence.

The Plaintiff may also call the Defendant to testify. This is not a criminal case so either party can call the other party to testify. Anyone who testifies in Court will first be sworn (or will affirm) to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

After the Plaintiff has finished, the Defendant will then present his/her case. The Defendant may also testify, present witnesses and present evidence just as the Plaintiff did. The Plaintiff may not interrupt or say anything at all while the Defendant is presenting his/her case.   

During the trial, the Judge may stop at any point and interrupt to ask questions of any of the parties or witnesses. In addition, the Judge may, with or without a request by either party, inspect scenes or locations involved in the case.

All Court proceedings are audio recorded. It is important that only one person speak at a time. There can be no interruptions. All persons must speak in a loud and clear voice for the recording.

Although the trial is informal, all parties and witnesses are subject to penalties for contempt of Court and perjury.  Respectful and courteous behavior is expected and required at all times; both inside and outside the Courtroom.

Be sure all your evidence is well-organized and your case is well-documented. The Judge will not sort through all your papers to help you prove or defend your case. The Judge will not recess the case to another day or wait for you to go retrieve some other paper or document. The Judge cannot telephone missing witnesses.

While the Small Claims Rules are less formal than the Indiana Trial Rules, there are two rules which do apply.

 Testimony or evidence  about offers to settle or compromise are not permitted.  It doe snot matter and will not be considered that the Defendant offered you  a lesser amount to settle the case.  Insurance coverage or lack of insurance coverage is also not relevant.  

Testimony about privileged communication is also not permitted to be offered in Small Claims Courts.  Examples of privileged communications are private conversations between legally married spouses, a doctor and patient, an attorney and client, a priest (minister, pastor) and congregant.

OTHER INFORMATION ABOUT YOUR DAY IN SMALL CLAIMS COURT

•    Give yourself extra time to get to the Courthouse and find a place to park. Make sure you do not park where you might get a parking ticket. 

•    Arrive early for your trial. This will help ease your nervousness and you may have a chance to observe other trials. However, be prepared to wait if the other trials take longer than expected.

•    You should dress neatly and appropriately when going to Court. Dress as if you were interviewing for a new job. This shows respect for the Court and the proceedings. 

•    Cell phones and other recordings devices are not permitted to be used inside any courtroom in Indiana. Turn off your phone and keep it in your pocket, purse, backpack, briefcase, etc. Never look at or have your phone in your hands while you are in the courtroom waiting for your case. Only turn on your cell phone if the Judge tells you to do so.

•    When the Judge enters the courtroom, if you are able, you should stand up and remain standing until the Judge asks all persons to be seated.

•    Do not approach the bench or the Court Reporter for any reason. The Judge will call you to come forward at the proper time.

•    Refer to the Judge as “Judge” or “Your Honor.”

•    Be respectful to everyone, including the other party and his/her witnesses

.•    The Judge will not expect you to be an accomplished public speaker.  Speak candidly and calmly, like you’re having a conversation. You know your case or your defense better than anyone. Just tell it like it happened and you will do fine.

•    Remain calm at all times. Do not argue with anyone including the other party, the other witnesses or the Judge.

•    Do not interrupt anyone. You will get your chance to tell the Judge your side of the story.  Be polite and wait for your turn.

•    If you need any special arrangements or have any special needs, please notify the Court staff as far in advance as possible. The Court will do all we can to make reasonable accommodations for any special needs you may have including vision and hearing assistance and language interpretation.

•    You should not bring small children with you to your trial.  You will need to be able to concentrate fully on your case. 

Here is a video from the Indiana Supreme Court which might help you in presenting your case in Small Claims court.

Representing Yourself in Small Clams Court