Guide to Small Claims Proceedings in the District Court - Going to Court - Mediation and Hearing
Be certain to arrive for the hearing on time. It is advisable to arrive at the courthouse early in order to find the proper courtroom and locate any witnesses you may have asked to appear. It is likely that other small claims cases have been scheduled for the same session, which may last all morning or all afternoon. You and your witnesses should plan to be available for the duration of the session.
At the beginning of the court session, the clerk or the judge will read all the names on the court's small claims list for that day in order to determine which cases are ready to be heard. If you do not appear, the case will be dismissed. If the defendant fails to appear, the judge may enter a default judgment, which is a judgment against a defendant who has not appeared. Before granting a default judgment, the judge may ask you to present some evidence in support of the claim.
In some courts, hearings will take place on the same day that the small claims list is called and mediation is held. In other courts, hearings may be scheduled for another day after the mediation.
At the hearing, the judge will require the parties to meet with a mediator to attempt to settle the dispute. Mediation is an informal way to settle a dispute with the help of a neutral third person. Trained individuals from the Court Alternative Dispute Resolution Service serve as mediators.
Mediation allows you to make choices about what you feel is in your best interest. It is a way of helping people reach settlement. You and the other party make the decisions in mediation. You are under no obligation to reach an agreement, and you do not give up your right to a court hearing.
If the parties are successful in settling the dispute, the settlement must then be submitted to the judge for court approval. An approved settlement has the force and effect of a judgment may not be appealed.
If settlement efforts fail or are considered by the judge to be inappropriate, the judge will conduct a hearing where both parties will tell their stories, present relevant papers and other exhibits, and have any witnesses testify. The judge will first ask you to tell your side of the story and to present evidence and witnesses. Then, the defendant will have an opportunity to respond and to present witnesses. Each party should tell his or her story slowly and clearly. Each party should give the judge any documents while testifying. Do not interrupt. If you disagree, you will be given an opportunity to make that known. Both parties have the right to "cross-examine," which means to ask questions of the other party's witness.
You should not come to court on the hearing date assuming that if you win the case, the defendant will immediately pay any money that is owed.
At the conclusion of the hearing, the judge may not announce the decision immediately. Sometimes a judge will take a case "under advisement," which means that the judge wants time to think about the case or to do some legal research. If the case is taken "under advisement," you will be notified of the decision by mail. Each party will receive a copy of the judgment either at the end of the hearing or by mail. The judgment will contain the name of the winning party, the time allowed for appeal, the amount awarded in the judgment plus costs, any other action ordered by the court, and a statement that if the judgment is not satisfied, a disclosure hearing may be held at the request of either party. (See "Collecting The Judgment through a Disclosure Hearing").