- Plan what you are going to say.
- Be ready to explain why you filed a claim and what you want the judge to order.
- Make an outline with your main points.
- Small claims trials last between 10-15 minutes so you want to keep to the point and be brief. Being prepared will help you with this.
- Try to think of what the other side will say and how to answer.
- Prepare your evidence (proof) to present in court. Evidence can be:
- Estimates (to repair or replace the loss, etc.) (take at least 3)
- Police reports
- Diagrams or drawings showing how the accident happened
Organize your evidence and label it clearly so you can hand it to the judge when you need to, even if you get nervous.
Generally, you should have at least 3 copies of all evidence you intend to present at trial. You should give one copy to every other party who appears at the hearing. Another copy goes to the Judge. You should always keep a copy too, so you can refer to it and mark it up as needed as you present your case. The original documents should be kept clean and unmarked, in case the judge wants to see originals, or in case you need to make more copies.
If you need documents that someone else has, you can subpoena those records. Click to learn how to subpoena documents.
- Take copies of all your court papers and the proof of service.
- Get your witnesses ready.
- You should take witnesses to your court trial who saw what happened, like another driver who saw the accident, or who is an expert on a subject, like the mechanic who looked at your car.
- Try not to take friends or relatives as witnesses unless they are your only witness because the judge may think they are only trying to help you. Whoever you take as a witness, make sure they are professional, objective and not emotional.
- Do not take witnesses unless you know they will support your case. It is not a good idea to take or subpoena a "hostile" witness if you are not sure what they will say. For example, the defendant's girlfriend who saw him hit you, may surprise you with her testimony or the mechanic who is worried about his job, may change his story in court.
- A written statement or Declaration, under penalty of perjury, can be used instead of live witness testimony in Small Claims Court. Form MC-030 can be used for this purpose.
Click to learn how to subpoena a witness.
- If you do not speak English well, find out if the court will provide you with an interpreter. If you want to request an interpreter, make sure you ask for one as soon as possible.
- Keep in mind you may have to pay a fee for an interpreter.
- You have the right to get your hearing delayed so you can get an interpreter.
- Click to learn more about interpreters and how to find one (California Courts website).
Watch the video Going to Court if you have not seen it yet. It will help you prepare and know what to expect the day of your trial.
- Click to see the Hearing Schedules and locations for San Mateo County.
In general, for small claims trials:
- Get there early!
- Your trial will take place in a courtroom with many other people who have their trial that same day.
- When the judge calls your name, go to the front of the room. Keep in mind that the judge may ask you to try to settle your case before your trial.
- The San Mateo Superior Court offers free small claims mediation on the day of court. If you want to mediate, tell the judge. Click to learn more about small claims mediation
- If a pro-tem (temporary) judge is taking the place of the regular judge or commissioner that day, you will be asked to sign a paper saying you are willing to have them decide your case. If you are not willing to agree, you may have to wait until later in the day when a judge or commissioner is available or your court date will be changed to another day when a judge or commissioner is available.
Once your trial starts, tell your story. Here are some tips:
- If you are the plaintiff, you will speak first. It is up to you to PROVE your case. Do not wait for the judge to ask you questions. But if the judge asks you questions, answer each question.
- Tell the judge why you filed a claim and what damages you have as a result of defendant's actions. Use your evidence to support what you say.
- If you have witnesses, call them so you can ask them questions. The other side will also have a chance to ask them questions. Remember, you can use declarations instead of live witness testimony.
- If you are the defendant, you will go second. Explain your side, and show the judge the plaintiff's claim (story) is not your fault or is not true. If you have evidence to prove your side, show the judge.
- Call your witnesses if you have them.
- Your story should be well organized and to the point. Do not go off on tangents, include too many details or repeat yourself.
- When telling your side of the story, stick to the facts. It is usually best to present them in chronological order and group facts together. For example, instead of listing all the dates you took your car back for repairs, say ""In the 6 months between January and June of 2018, I took the car in 14 times and each time he did not fix the noise coming from the engine."
- Stay calm and polite. Do not interrupt the judge or the other side.
After the trial:
- If you are the plaintiff, review the post-trial checklist.
- If you are the defendant, review the post-trial checklist.
A subpoena is a court order that says that your witness has to come to court. It can also say that someone has to deliver papers or documents to the court on or before the date of your trial.
You may need to subpoena a witness if:
- Your witness will not come to court (sometimes a witness needs the subpoena to show their boss so they can leave work to come to court), or
- You need documents to prove your case and the person or business that has them will not give them to you voluntarily.
To subpoena a person or documents for your trial:
- Fill out a Small Claims Subpoena (SC-107).
- If you are subpoenaing a person to come to court, fill out page 1 only.
- If you are requesting documents, complete pages 1 and 2 of Form SC-107.
- Do not fill out page 3 yet!
- Take the Subpoena to the Clerk to have it issued.
- Make at least 2 copies of the subpoena. One is for you and one for the person you want to subpoena.
- Deliver the subpoena to the witness you want to come to court or provide documents to the court.
- Any person, including yourself, can deliver the subpoena.
- Make sure you deliver or serve a copy, not the original one.
- Fill out page 3 of the original subpoena, the one with the seal on it, saying when and where you - or another person if you had someone else deliver the subpoena -- gave it to the person you want to subpoena.
- File the original subpoena with the completed page 3 to the clerk's office.
Keep in mind that a witness can ask for fees of $35 per day and 20 cents a mile each way. Witness fees for law officers and some government employees are higher. If a witness asks for fees, they do not have to go to the trial if they are not paid. The person who serves the subpoena should be prepared to pay the fees at the time they deliver the subpoena, in case the witness asks for fees. If the witness does not ask for fees, you do not have to offer them.
In general, if you are suing someone or being sued, you must appear in Small Claims Court and represent yourself. You cannot have a lawyer or be represented by someone else.
- A member of the armed forces, on active duty and assigned outside the state after his or her claim arose, does not need to appear if the assignment is for more than six months.
- If a business is a sole proprietorship, the owner must appear in court.
- If a business is a partnership, one of the partners must appear.
- If a business is a corporation, an employee, officer or director must appear in court.
- The person appearing in court cannot be employed, appointed or elected just to represent the corporation in court. They must have other duties as well.
There are some exceptions to the general rule that you cannot be represented by someone else:
- In cases where a claim can be proved or disputed by evidence of a business record and there is no other issue, a regular employee, who is qualified to testify about the business record may appear for the plaintiff or defendant.
- If you are suing the owner of real property in California and the owner lives out of state, the owner can be represented in court by one other person, provided they are not an attorney, or can submit written declarations instead of appearing in person.
- An owner of rental real property may have the property agent appear and participate in a small claims action as long as:
- The property agent must manages the rental of the owner's property.
- The property owner must has hired the property agent principally to manage the rental property and not principally to represent the owner in small claims court.
- The claim must relates to the rental property.
- The property agent submits a declaration at the small claims court hearing. You can see a sample Declaration of Property Agent.
Go to Court