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Presenting Your Case Before the Judge or Arbitrator

Know what to expect when you walk into the small claims courtroom.

The presence of the debtor and the debtor's lawyer might unnerve even the boldest among us. Fortunately, only rarely does the defendant appear. Even if he does, the likelihood that the debtor will bring an attorney is even less. It has not happened to me in well over a hundred cases.

Here are some specific guidelines to help you, especially if the defendant does appear to contest your claim:

Planning Tip

  1. Do your best to remain calm throughout the hearing.

  2. Keep your documents in order by date and/or exhibit number.

  3. Have the facts of your own story prepared on a 5" x 7" index card. No judge will prohibit you from relating your story as long as it is brief, but be complete and coherent

  4. As the defendant is relating his side of the story try to write down in outline form each point he makes, especially the inconsistencies. Do not interrupt him except to object to the introduction of statements that are hearsay. When he has finished, ask the judge for a three-minute recess to allow you to compose your response because you are hearing the details of the defense and/or counterclaim for the first time. You will likely be permitted your request, but if you are not, take a long look at the notes you took and then respond as best you can.

  5. Speak clearly and avoid making angry or accusatory statements. Be polite to the defendant and the judge (avoid attitude). You can refer to them as "Mr. Smith" or "the defendant" and "your honor" or "Judge Jones" respectively. I once lost a case, I believe, because I was rude and excessively outspoken.

  6. When the judge (arbitrator) asks a question in order to clarify some point or another, a good rule to follow is to count slowly to five before responding to any question put to you.

  7. Make certain you have made all the points you intended to make. You will regret it if you fail to deliver that key point that was sum and substance of your entire case.

  8. The judge will usually ask you if you have anything else to add. The moment that either you or the defendant get up to leave not a single word may be added.

At the hearing, presenting proof that the debtor owes you money can be done by persons other than the plaintiff. For example, in a doctor's office the person most often familiar with the financial elements of the case is the person at the front desk in charge of entering payments on the debtor's payment (ledger) card, and that person may be the one best suited to present the facts. However, local court rules and individual judges and arbitrators have the discretion to permit or deny such plaintiff stand-ins.

If you are preparing for your first encounter in court, I urge you to write down on a 5" x 7" index card your response to the first question the judge is going to ask you in one form or another: What is your case about? Have the card ready to read, if need be, for the hearing itself.

Finally, if the plaintiff's representative suddenly found himself at a loss for words, unable to sustain the argument or faced with issues raised unexpectedly by the defendant, he could simply say at any point in the hearing, "Mr. Arbitrator, I would like to withdraw my complaint 'without prejudice.'" As a matter of course this request would probably be granted by the arbitrator. In this manner the plaintiff is allowed to reinitiate his claim at a future date, albeit not without some loss of time and effort.

Admittedly, the plaintiff or his stand-in will feel some trepidation at the first appearance before the arbitrator, even though he is commonly an (unpaid) volunteer lawyer. It is my impression that most arbitrators are relatively sympathetic to your plight. However, they are trained to make decisions on the basis of the facts related to your case and the proof that you present to substantiate them.


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