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Prepare for your Day in Court

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This section tells you about:

  1. How do I get a new court date (continuance)?
  2. What if I have a disability and need special accommodations?
  3. What if I need an interpreter?
  4. What should I bring to my hearing?
  5. What will happen at the hearing?
  6. What is a Pro Tem judge?
  7. Is it too late to settle before the hearing?
  8. How to present your case
  9. How to ask for costs
  10. What happens if I miss the court hearing?
  1. How do I get a new court date (continuance)?

    If you have a good reason to change the hearing date, you can either file a Request to Postpone Trial  or write a letter to the Court requesting a new court date.
    • If filing a Request to Postpone form , a copy has to be served on all parties by mail or personal delivery.

    • If writing a letter to the Court instead, a copy must be sent to all parties and the letter must indicate that a copy was sent to all other parties. (You can make a notation at the bottom which says "copies sent to" and then the names of the other parties.)

    Whether filing the form or submitting a letter to the Court, there is a filing fee (see fees on the local fee schedule ) unless you meet one of the following exceptions:

    1. The Court has granted you a fee waiver; or
    2. You are asking for a new court date because you were not served properly or on time; or
    3. You are asking for the new hearing before you are served by the plaintiff.

    You have to have a good reason to change your hearing date. The Court will usually change your hearing date if:

    • The plaintiff hasn't had a chance to serve the defendant,
    • The defendant wasn't served enough days before the hearing,
    • The defendant filed a cross claim, but the plaintiff wasn't served at least 5 days before the hearing. Exception: If the defendant was served less than 15 days before the hearing date, the defendant can serve the plaintiff until the day before the hearing.
    • The court thinks that the parties want to try mediation or another form of alternative dispute resolution.

    If you're not sure if your reason is good enough to change the hearing date, contact the small claims advisor in your county. Click to access the Small Claims Advisor page on this website.

  2. What if I have a disability, and I need special accommodations?

    If you have a disability and need help, get a form called Request for Accommodations form MC-410  from the clerk. People with hearing disabilities can use TDD numbers to contact the court.

    Click on the courthouse name to go to the page with TDD numbers and location information:

  3. What if I need an interpreter?

    The court can’t give you an interpreter. If you can pay for an interpreter, search for an interpreter on the State Court website . Your interpreter can't be a lawyer and can't represent you.

    If you can't pay for an interpreter, bring someone who speaks English. You have to ask the court to let that person be your interpreter. See the Interpreter Information page on this website.

  4. What should I bring to my hearing?

    Bring all the evidence that will help the judge understand the case. This can be:

    • A written contract,
    • Receipts
    • Letters
    • Estimates in writing
    • Repair orders
    • Photographs
    • Canceled checks
    • Account books
    • Advertisements
    • Warranties
    • Service contracts, or
    • Other documents.

    If you can, bring originals and not copies.

    If your case is about damaged property, some courts ask you to show two or three repair estimates to prove that your claim is reasonable. Make a map, diagram, or drawing if it will help you explain your case. Make two copies of any paper you want to give the judge. The judge can ask you to give one copy to the other person and keep one copy in the court's file. Usually you can keep your original.

    In small claims court, the judge will ask any question that will help him/her understand the case. They can also take information and evidence into account that wouldn’t be allowed in other courts. Don't hesitate to bring papers that you think might help the judge understand the case. In most cases, you or the other person can give the judge all the information and papers needed to understand and decide the case.

    Sometimes, you need a witness to give the court information. If you think this information is a big part of your case or defense, try to get the witness to go to the hearing. If a witness can't go, ask them to write and sign something called a "declaration". The statement should say everything the witness wants to tell the judge about your case.

    At the end of the statement, the witness should write, "I declare under penalty of perjury under the laws of the State of California that the above is true and correct." The witness has to sign the statement, write the date, their city and telephone number. If the witness doesn’t live in California, they have to sign the statement in front of a notary public.

    Note: The judge doesn’t have to accept a written statement, so try to get an important witness to come to your hearing. Talk to your witness before the hearing. They may not see things the same way you do. Or, they may have forgotten the important points. If the witness is hostile to you, they can do more harm than good.

    If your case is about something technical, like a car or TV that doesn’t work, you may have to talk to an expert. Get the expert to be a witness at the hearing, or ask them to write and sign a statement (declaration). The judge also can name or talk to an expert. You won't get your money back for expert witnesses, but you still may want to hire one.

    If your witness won't come to court or won't give the court the papers you need, you can subpoena the witness. A form called a Small Claims Subpoena  (or Civil Subpoena) is a court order that makes a person go to court.

    It's not a good idea to force somebody to testify for you. They probably won't be a good witness and might testify against you. But you might need a subpoena so a witness can get permission from their boss to miss work to testify or bring papers to the court. You can get a Subpoena from the clerk or open the
    Small Claims Subpoena  online.

    After you fill it out, you must have the clerk sign the subpoena before it can be served. Then you or anybody else can give a copy of the subpoena to the witness. After they get a copy, return the original subpoena to the court with the Proof of Service ) on the back filled out.

    A witness can ask for $35 a day plus 20 cents for every mile they drive each way. If your witness is a police officer or government employee, you’ll have to pay more. The witness doesn’t have to go to court if they haven’t been paid. The person who served the subpoena should be ready to pay when they give the witness the subpoena. If the witness doesn't ask to be paid, you don't have to offer.

    The subpoena form requires you to say what you want and why you need it. If you want the witness to bring papers to the hearing, check the box that asks the witness to do that. You can ask the witness to bring the papers and testify, or just bring the papers.

    Fill out the declaration form (page two of the Small Claims Subpoena ) and say exactly what papers you need and why you need them.

    The witness has to be served with the Small Claims Subpoena and a copy of the declaration form. After the witness gets the subpoena, fill out the Proof of Service on the back and file the original with the clerk before the hearing.

  5. What happens at the hearing?

    • The clerk will call roll to see who is there.
    • The parties in the case are “sworn in” so they can testify.
    • You and the other party or parties will be asked to go outside to talk and to try and settle your case, and share evidence.
    • When everyone is back in the courtroom, the judge will take the bench.
    • Cases are usually called in this order:

      1. Motions and requests. Cases where someone wants a continuance or where there’s a settlement.
      2. Cases when only the defendant is there.
      3. Default matters. Cases when only the plaintiff is there.
      4. Contested cases. Cases where both parties are there and can’t settle their case.
    • When they call your case, you and your witnesses go up to the plaintiff or defendant table. Get ready to give any exhibits or evidence to the clerk. The clerk will mark the evidence and give it to the judge.

    • In general, the plaintiff gets to present his/her case first. When the plaintiff is done, the defendant will get a chance to give his/her side of the case.

    • The Judge, Commissioner or Pro Tem Judge, called a judicial officer, can give his/her decision in court after listening to both sides of the story. Or, he/she can make the decision later. This is called “taking the matter under submission.” If the judge decides the case in court, you’ll get all your evidence back, and a copy of the judge's decision on the notice of entry of judgment (SC-130 ). If the judge takes time to decide, you’ll get a copy of the notice of entry of judgment by mail, with the evidence you gave the court.

      Note: If the evidence is too big to mail, you might have to pick it up at the clerk's office.
  6. What is a Pro Tem judge?

    Most courts use temporary judges (called Pro Tem judges) to hear small claims cases. A temporary judge is a lawyer that has a license to practice law in California with at least 5 years of experience and who volunteers to hear some cases. The temporary judge has to take a training class before hearing cases.

    On the day of the hearing, you will be asked if you agree, (called consenting or stipulating) to have a temporary judge decide your case. Everyone in the case has to agree to have a temporary judge. Some courts make you sign a consent form.

    If someone doesn’t agree, the clerk will set another court date for the hearing. A commissioner will hear the case.

  7. Is it too late to settle before the hearing?

    Before the hearing, you go into the hallway to share evidence and try to settle. If you reach an agreement, go back in the courtroom and tell them you settled.

    You have to:
    • Dismiss the action,
    • Move the hearing until the terms of your agreement are met, or
    • Put your agreement in the court record as a formal judgment.
  8. How to present your case

    Before the hearing, the judge or some other court officer will explain how the courtroom works. Then the court will call roll to see who is there for their hearings. Listen carefully so you'll know what to do. Everyone who will be part of the hearings will take an oath and promise to tell the truth. The court will hear each case.

    Usually, cases where the defendant isn't there- called "default cases" - are heard first. Listen to the other cases to learn more about how to present your case or defense. Don’t leave the courtroom. Cases aren’t always called in the order on the court calendar.

    Here’s how things will start when the judge is ready to hear your case:

    • The judge will call the names of all the plaintiffs and defendants in the case.
    • You, the other parties, and the witnesses should go up to the table in front of the judge.
    • Judges usually ask the plaintiff to tell their side first, and then the defendant can talk. But, some judges can start by asking questions to learn more about the case.
    • Make sure you say the most important things first. In general, you'll only have only a few minutes to tell your side of the case or answer questions.
    • You can use notes, but try not to read a prepared statement.
    • Make sure you have all your evidence and important papers with you. Tell the judge that you have them, and ask the clerk to give them to the judge.
    • If the judge has to keep your evidence, ask how and when you’ll get them back.

    Telling your side of the case isn't like telling a story to a friend. When you talk to a friend, you usually start from the beginning, give all the details, build suspense, and then finish. In court, you want the judge to think about the most important part of your case.

    Some judges investigate the case after hearing your information in the courtroom. For example, a judge might ask the Bureau of Automotive Repair to investigate allegations that a car repair shop did fraudulent work.

    Some judges will talk to contractors they know and trust to get advice in a case about construction. For example, if your case is about bad work done by a car paint shop, you may want to bring your car to the courthouse parking lot and ask the judge to look at your car. A judge may visit the place you had a car accident. But, it's up to the judge to investigate or not.

    Make your points quickly. Try to be objective and don’t get emotional. The judge just wants to hear the facts. Don't yell at or insult the other person or witness, no matter how mad you are. At the hearing, just talk to the judge. DON’T talk to the other party. Be HONEST. Think about the judge’s question before you answer. If you don't understand the question, ask the judge to explain it.

    The judge is thinking about laws you might not know about. Don’t get mad if the questions are about things you don't think are important. The judge's questions may be very important to your case.

    The law says any money award has to be "reasonable". So, the judge will want to know exactly how the plaintiff figured out the amount they asked for. The plaintiff has to be able to explain how they got that number. If they’re also asking for interest, the plaintiff should be ready to show how it was figured out. It’s a good idea to give the judge your damages in writing.

    If the defendant thinks the plaintiff is asking for too much money, the defendant has to be able to explain why. The defendant can tell the judge if he/she knows that they owe the plaintiff part of the money. The judge might order you to pay the entire amount owed all at once, or the judge might order a payment plan. To request a payment plan, you can file a Request to Make Payments  form.

    While the judge asks the other party to explain their side, don't argue or interrupt, even if you think it’s a lie or not right. Make a note to yourself so you’ll remember. You’ll usually get time to answer.

  9. How to ask for costs

    Most judges award court costs routinely to the person who wins, but make sure to ask the judge for them at the hearing. Costs are what you pay out-of- your-pocket for fees and to file your claim. If you get costs, they’ll be included in the judgment.

    If nobody “loses” the judgment might not have court costs. Make sure to keep receipts for your filing fees and other costs. You can only get some costs back from the person who loses.

    For example:
    • Filing fees,
    • Fees for service of process,
    • Witness fees (not for expert witnesses), and
    • Fees to serve subpoenas (for witnesses or papers).

    The judge may award you other kinds of costs, so bring your receipts to the hearing.

  10. What happens if I miss my court hearing?

    If you are the plaintiff and you do not go to court, your case will probably be dismissed, unless there are special circumstances.

    If you are the defendant and you don’t go to court, the plaintiff will probably win after they present their case.

    The person who didn’t go to the hearing can file a motion to vacate the judgment if they have a good reason for not going.
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