This article is the fourth of five installments on how North Carolina Small Claims Court works. If you're just now tuning in, Parts I, II, and III are here, here, and here, respectively. Do yourself a solid and check 'em out.
Alright, the trial's scheduled. How do I prepare?
So once the trial date is set, you'll need to get ready. How you should get ready, however, is going to largely depend on which party you are. You'll recall from earlier installments that the plaintiff is the person bringing the claim - the person alleging that the defendant engaged in some wrongdoing - and the person who bears the "burden of proof." The burden of proof differs based on what type of case you're talking about, but in civil cases like Small Claims the burden of proof is going to be by the "preponderance of the evidence." That means you have to convince the court that your claims are more likely than not true; if you're looking at it from a "scales of justice" perspective, then your evidence just has to be the teensiest bit heavier than the defendant's. The defendant, on the other hand, is the person defending against the plaintiff's claims.
So, to preparations. Regardless of which party you are, there are several things you'll want to do in order to make sure that you're ready for the trial.
- Gather your evidence. Like we've said in the past, the evidentiary standards are less stringent in Small Claims court, so your evidence can be just about anything that you feel is relevant to your case; whether that takes the form of documentation, tangible objects, witness testimony, etc. I've always found it helpful to make a list of all the evidence you'll need before you start collecting it.
- Write a script, and practice it. You don't want to improvise in open court; ever. Put your notes together, write flash cards, do whatever you need to do to figure out what you're going to say. Then you need to practice your script, a bunch of times. Practice until you're comfortable with everything that you want to say.
- If you're able to, go and scope out the courtroom beforehand. You won't get in anyone's good books by running late or showing up to the wrong courtroom.
One final note; the other party may approach you about the possibility of settling the case. Settlement happens a lot, and if you deem it appropriate under your specific circumstances then it's fine to consider it. Just remember to protect your interests, and get any settlement agreement in writing.
What should I expect at the trial?
This is going to jump around a bit, and I apologize if I'm about to drop an information overload on our readers. But remember generally that preparation is key and that you can call us with any questions!
- The Plaintiff speaks first, then the Defendant. Don't speak until the magistrate judge asks you to, and under no circumstances should you interrupt the other party; even if he or she is lying or embellishing. Speak calmly and cohesively. Don't raise your voice, don't argue, and don't try to speak in a legalistic manner. It's really easiest to follow if you keep your events in chronological order. Be factual and objective.
- If you bring evidence with you, don't dump it all on the bench at once; instead, offer each piece as it becomes relevant to your story. Make sure you're bringing copies for the other party as well as the court.
- If you have witnesses, you can call them up and question them after you finish with your story. Just let the magistrate judge know that you have witnesses, and remember that the other party gets to question your witnesses when you're done with them. If the cross-examination brings up details that you missed or that need clarifying, ask the magistrate judge if you can question the witness on re-direct examination.
- If the magistrate has questions for you, answer them concisely, calmly, and honestly.
- Once the parties have given their accounts, the magistrate judge will come to one of three decisions, or "judgments." He'll either (i) grant the relief sought by the plaintiff, (ii) dismiss the case outright, or (iii) compromise by landing somewhere between what the plaintiff wants and what the defendant wants. The compromise option is extremely common in Small Claims Court. This can be very frustrating, but it's also why Small Claims parties have access to the appeals process, which is what we're going to discuss next week!
So next week, we'll cover our final installment on Judgments and Appeals. Make sure to tune in!