The small claims court system can be confusing and intimidating, especially for the uninitiated. Even so, the small claims court system provides a simple and inexpensive way for individuals and business owners to get the justice they deserve.
Whether you are a business owner seeking payment for work you have done, a driver who has been injured in an auto accident or a homeowner who is fed up with your neighbors infringing on your property rights, going to small claims court can be a smart thing to do. But simply going to small claims court is not enough – you need to know what to expect before you get there, and what you need to do to prevail.
Many people mistakenly believe that they can go to small claims court without the aid of an attorney, and it is true that the individuals in these cases are allowed to represent themselves. That does not mean, however, that going to small claims court without first seeking the advice of a qualified attorney is a good idea.
If you hope to prevail in your small claims action, you need to seek the right preparation before you enter the courtroom. That means seeking affordable legal advice in Arkansas – advice you can rely on to present your case with confidence.
Even after you have sought and received affordable legal advice in Arkansas, it is important to know what to expect once you get to small claims court. Once you know what to expect, the entire court experience becomes much less intimidating, and far less challenging, than you first anticipated.
How Long Will I Be in Court?
If you have never been to small claims court before, you will have a lot of questions, including how long you can expect to spend in the courtroom. It is important to realize that the amount of time you will spend depends on a number of different factors, including how many court cases are scheduled that day, how long each of the hearings takes and whether you are able to reach an agreement with the other side.
A contentious small claims court will obviously take longer than one in which the two sides are able to agree. If you are suing a customer for non-payment, for instance, the person on the other side of the case may offer to pay you a percentage of what is owed, and you may ultimately agree that that settlement. If no agreement can be reached, you can expect the proceedings to last longer, and you may need to lean on the affordable legal advice in Arkansas for further advice and guidance.
Plan for a Full Day
Regardless of how long the small claims proceedings ultimately take, you should expect to be at the court for the entire day. You should not try to rush the process or worry that you have somewhere else to be; take the whole day off work or school and plan to be in small claims court for the duration. While the staff at the courtroom will try to get you in and out as quickly as possible, an unforeseen event could back up the cases and extend the amount of time you need to be there.
Do I Need a Lawyer for My Small Claims Case?
Another common question among small claims defendants and plaintiffs is whether or not they need a lawyer. It is important to note that the small claims system has been specifically set up to let individuals and businesses handle cases on their own. Even so, it can be helpful to have the advice and guidance of an experienced courtroom attorney, and that is why affordable legal advice in Arkansas is so important.
It is also important to note that attorneys are permitted in small claims court. If you decide you need an attorney to handle your case, you will need to hire one on your own, and you should choose a lawyer with extensive courtroom experience. It may be small claims court, but it is still an important case to you.
What Do I Do When I Arrive at the Courthouse?
You should expect to pass through a metal detector to gain access to the courthouse, so be sure to empty your pockets and be prepared to have your handbag, briefcase and other personal items searched. Weapons are not permitted in the courtroom, so you should not bring anything that could be considered dangerous.
Once you go through the metal detectors, you should start looking for a sign that says Small Claims Court. If you do not see the sign, you can ask the Marshall in charge or anyone in the Clerk’s Office.
If you arrive before the start of court proceedings for the day, you should first go to the clerk and present the notice you received. You should also give your name and the name of your case to the clerk in charge of the court.
If court has already begun, you should wait until the current case has concluded and then tell the Clerk or Judge that you are there. If you do not let the Clerk or Judge know you are there, you may lose your case, since the court officials may assume you did not show up.
What Happens Next?
After checking in with the Clerk or Judge, you should simply wait your turn and wait for your case to begin. At the beginning of the court day, the Judge will take their place behind the bench and read a list of all cases that are to be heard that day.
When you hear your case called, you simply stand up and tell the Judge you are ready to proceed. If you do not hear your case called, wait until the Judge is done reading the list and politely let them know.
Understanding the Rules of Courtroom Decorum
Small claims court is a serious place, and there are some expected rules of decorum that should be observed at all times. It is important to know how to behave in court, especially if this is your first time interacting with the legal system. The rules that should be observed while in the courtroom include:
- Do not bring any food or drink into the courtroom
- Do not chew gum in the courtroom
- Turn your cell phone off before you enter the courtroom, and keep it off throughout the proceedings
- Remove your hat before your enter the courtroom (you may wear religious headgear)
- Do not speak until it is your turn
- Stand up when the Judge enters or leaves the courtroom
- Stand up when you are speaking to the Judge
- Refer to the Judge as “Your Honor” or simply as “Judge”
- Answer out loud when asked a question, and speak up so you can be heard
- Refrain from interrupting when others are speaking, even if you disagree with what they are saying
What Should I Bring to Court
It is important to be prepared when going to small claims court. It is a good idea to take notes and practice what you will say. If you are working with an attorney, he or she can help you prepare, so you can present the best case possible.
Before you leave home on the day of your hearing, you should make sure you have everything you need, including:
- Your identification
- The notice of hearing
- Documents and photographs that support your claim, i.e. medical bills, police reports, cancelled checks, receipts, contracts and agreements, damage estimates, photos showing the damage, etc. Be sure to make extra copies before you leave home.
- Any witnesses who can support your case or tell the court what happened
What Happens When the Case is Over?
In some cases, the Judge will announce the decision from the bench, so you will know the outcome right away. In other cases, the court will send you a notice later on to inform you of the decision.
While a small claims judge will hand down a decision, you have thirty days to appeal the decision in the appropriate circuit court system.
Going to small claims court is a serious matter, and you should take it seriously. Even though the small claims court system allows you to act on your own behalf, hiring an experienced courtroom attorney can help you build a better case and ultimately increase the chances that you will prevail.