How to settle in small claims court without a lawyer?

Most cities and many large towns have a small claims court. Its purpose is to settle minor civil disputes (not criminal charges) at minimal cost. The limit on complaints varies; generally it is about $2,000. Hearings, often held at night, are informal: you need no lawyer to represent you or to prepare paperwork.

To sue in small claims court, go during business hours and file a complaint with the court clerk. Give the name and address of the person you are suing, along with a brief description of your complaint. You will probably have to pay a small fee to cover court costs and the cost of sending a summons. The court will set a hearing date and inform your opponent of the action.

Go to the hearing even if you know that your opponent will not be there; he or she is entitled to an adjournment, but if you are absent your claim will be dismissed. Take with you any evidence: contracts, bills, receipts. canceled checks, letters, photos, or witnesses. Don’t talk with your opponent: wait quietly until your turn comes. You may be asked to choose between a judge and an arbiter; an arbiter will hear your case sooner but you cannot appeal the decision.

When the judge or arbiter questions you, calmly tell your side of the story. Stick to the facts and don’t exaggerate. During your opponent’s testimony, listen carefully for statements that you can prove to be untrue. Don’t interrupt: you will have a chance to answer later.

If the judge or arbiter decides in your favor, you should receive any payment due within 2 weeks. If you do not, send a copy of the judgment to your opponent by registered mail, return receipt requested, along with a letter asking for payment; keep a copy of the letter. If he or she still fails to pay, notify the court.