San Francisco Office

FAQ – Small Claims Court

FAQ Representing Yourself in Small Claims Court

I want to make my neighbors pay for the damage they did to my tree. Why do I need coaching services just to have my case heard in small claims court?

Most small claims courts are set up to minimize the stress of your court appearance   This said, you have to do your part and you have to do it well. In a typical tree case, you will need witnesses and documentation to support your claim. Many claimants find that they need coaching even when they are able to follow the court procedures to the letter. As with so many tasks, preparation is the key to success.  To insure that the judge will appreciate the merits of your case, you must present it properly and with convictions:

  • Your documents must be complete and in perfect order;
  • You must be coherent in your presentation;
  • You have to anticipate the strategy and questions of your opponent;
  • You also need to be aware of legal issues, such as, your duty to satisfy what is called the “the burden of proof.”

Small claims court may be informal, but a claimant who is not prepared will not be happy with the result. Don’t count on your opponent to help your cased by failing to show up or being unprepared.

I’d like to have coaching on an as-needed basis. I want to make sure that my papers are in order and that I haven’t left out anything important for my speech to the judge. Is limited coaching available?

Yes. The best approach is to obtain coaching services early in the process. This is especially important if your damages approach or exceed the maximum amount that you can recover in small claims court. I will assist you at all stages or at any stage you select. I can help you prepare your demand letter and complete the small claims forms with the detail necessary to state your claim fully and succinctly.   I can also guide you through the process for filing and serving your papers and help you organize your case for you to present.  If the court offers mediation, I will prepare you to participate and advise you on what to expect in this settlement proceeding.

Do I need coaching to participate in a mediation settlement session at the courthouse?

Courts encourage voluntary mediation because, when a case it settled, it relieves the court of the strain on the court’s resources. I will prepare you for your small claims mediation session by walking you through the procedure and helping you develop a strategy that is based on your personality and the merits of your case.   The mediation session can be stressful and unproductive if you do not know what to expect.   Mediators are neutral, and because of this they have a high rate of success in having the disputing parties reach a mutual agreement.   When you are well prepared, you will be able to approach the mediation session with confidence and make your own deliberate, informed choice as to whether you will settle and on what terms you will accept a settlement. It is important to remember that if you do not settle with your opponent at mediation, you are still entitled to have your day in court.

I want to defend myself in small claims court. How will coaching help me win?

Your best defense is thorough preparation, objectivity and a clear strategy. Coaching helps you organize your best defense and sift out the right facts and issues to present at court or in the mediation settlement session.  Your first considerations are strategic.  At the outset, you have to be prepared to strike the best deal if your case has holes in it. When you are one being sued, you also have to think about whether you can assert you own claim that will offset your opponent’s claim.  Next, you have to choose the most relevant facts to assert and the best way to present them. Whether you are in the courtroom of in a mediation settlement proceeding, you will have to demonstrate that you know the facts and certain basic concepts of the law.   For example, you have to know how to argue the legal defense that an injured party has the duty to mitigate, or minimize, the damages claimed. Don’t think that you can prevail with a shallow defense. Even if you are well-spoken and present a fine appearance, a small claims judge will not rule in your favor if you do not present a full defense by addressing important legal issues as well as relevant facts.

I want to represent myself, but my claim against my neighbor exceeds the amount that the Small Claims Court will hear.   What can I do?

You have options, and you must weigh them carefully.

OPTION A: Waive the Excess Amount

If your claim against your neighbor is for more than $10,000, you can still sue in Small Claims Court, but by doing so you waive the amount of your claim that exceeds $10,000. You can’t split your claim into two or three separate cases and your right to collect your full amount of your original claim is lost forever.

OPTION B: Represent Yourself In Pro Per

You can still represent yourself in the regular civil court for the full amount of your claim, but the Court will proceed on the assumption that you have educated yourself to know and follow the rules of evidence and the formal court procedures.

Here are some of the risks you take when you represent yourself without any assistance from an attorney:

  • You may make a procedural error that cannot be corrected on the spot.
  • You may examine a witness ineffectively or fail to present necessary evidence.
  • You may make ineffective arguments.
  • You may fail to object to inadmissible evidence that supports your opponent.
  • You may complete forms incorrectly.

Your judge may struggle to maintain impartiality, but if your case is not presented properly, you will not be satisfied with the result.

OPTION C: Use Limited-Scope Attorney Services

You may also choose to work with a limited-scope attorney.  This option allows you to pursue your case when the full-service attorney fees and court costs are prohibitive.    I offer limited-scope services because I believe that the cost of full-service litigation deprives too many claimants of their right to have the their day in court.

Here’s how it works. You and I work together.  First, we discuss all the aspects of your case. Then we work out a plan on how to proceed in court and settlement proceedings and we develop a strategy for dealing with your opposing party.

You can choose the legal services that suit you best.

  • You can just consult me and get legal information and advice about your case when you need it.
  • You can engage my services to represent you on certain issues in your case while you do the rest yourself.
  • You can have me prepare the forms and other court documents, and then file them yourself and represent yourself at the hearings.
  • You can have me coach you on how to represent yourself at the court hearings and help you prepare the evidence that you will present in court.
  • You can engage my services to help you with the more complicated parts of your case, such as discovery and legal research while you do the simpler tasks yourself.

I favor this approach because it is cost effective and helps you avoid the frustrations of the legal system as it is played out in the courts.