Learn what to expect at a small claims trial

Find out what may happen at court during your small claims trial.

Leading up to the trial

Unless the plaintiff and defendant settle the case before the trial date, both sides must appear in court on the date the case is scheduled for trial.

Mediation is available in many courts on the trial date. When the case is called, if mediation is available, you’ll be asked if you’d like to mediate your claim.

If you can’t come to court on the trial date, you can file a Motion to Continue (postpone) the case, serve the other person with a copy, and ask for a hearing before a magistrate so the other side has an opportunity to object. Continuances should only be for good reason, such as an illness, emergency, or if a witness isn’t available. If both sides agree to the change, you can file a Joint Motion to Continue. Don’t wait until the last minute. If the other side makes a reasonable request for a continuance, it may save you some inconvenience if you agree to the request.

  • If the plaintiff doesn’t appear for trial but the defendant does — The court will enter a judgment for the defendant.
  • If both the plaintiff and defendant don’t appear for trial — The claim will be dismissed.
  • If the defendant doesn’t appear for trial but the plaintiff does — The court will likely enter a default judgment and order the defendant to pay the amount claimed. The magistrate may ask the plaintiff to present some evidence of the claim, even if the defendant isn’t there.

It may be helpful to write down the facts of the case in the order they happened ahead of time. This will help you organize your thoughts and make a clear presentation of your story.

On the trial date, you must bring any witnesses, checks, bills, papers, photographs or letters that will help you prove your case. If you’re submitting documents as exhibits at trial, bring copies for the magistrate and the defendant. If you need a witness to come to court but the witness won’t come, ask the clerk-magistrate's office for a witness summons. You’ll then need to arrange to have a constable or deputy sheriff deliver it to the witness. You may need an expert witness to prove any matter that’s not within common experience.

The laws governing small claims are the same as those for other lawsuits, except that simplified procedures are used. The plaintiff must prove that the claim is one that the law recognizes and that the defendant is responsible, or the magistrate will enter a decision for the defendant.

The day of the trial

Be sure to arrive on time. If your case isn’t resolved by a mediator, a trial will be held before a magistrate. The plaintiff will be asked to tell their side of the story, then the defendant will tell their side. Each side will have an opportunity to ask the other side and their witnesses questions. To win your case, you need to prove that your claim is valid.

If both parties are present when the case is called, the case will go forward unless there’s good cause to postpone. If you’re ready to go forward and the other party wants to postpone, make sure you tell the magistrate that you object.

The magistrate will make a decision. Notice of the decision, called a "judgment", will be given or sent to each side.

Winning your case

If you won your case, you’re required to tell the court in writing within 10 days after you collect the full amount of the court’s judgment. You don’t need to use any particular form for your notice, but be sure to include the court’s docket number. You may also choose to use either the Acknowledgment of Satisfaction of Judgment form or the Acknowledgment of Satisfaction of Judgment on Counterclaim form to tell the court.

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