So you’re on your own in court, but there’s good news! It’s not as scary as you think. Ideally, you have a lawyer but we know that you may not be able to afford one – and the court does too.
This varies heavily by the location and court, but generally small claims and landlord-tenant court are designed for people who can’t afford lawyers. The matters here are too small to justify full format court proceedings, so they operate more like Judge Judy than Boston Legal. There’s no need to memorize objections, civil procedure rules, or any of that lawyer stuff. Just show up and tell your side of the story. The other side tells their side. You may be asked to present evidence, like emails or text messages, if there’s a disputed fact. And then, the judge makes a decision. It can be done in less than 30 minutes.
When we say it’s informal, it means that you won’t need to cite cases or do depositions. That doesn’t mean that you can show up in torn up jeans and flip-flops, chewing gum, saying, “Yo. What up, Judge.” You should dress nicely, either in a suit or the most formal thing you have. Refer to the judge as “Your Honor” – DO NOT call them “Judge” or refer to them by name unless they ask. Calling someone “Your Honor” is not natural so it may help to practice at home.
Do not interrupt or talk over the judge. Show respect for your opponent. Different places have different rules for whether you can talk over your opponent – take cues from your local culture. Many of these cases are open, so you may want to attend a court case before your date to see what the room, the judge, and process is like.
Do Some Legal Research
You’re not a lawyer, but you should at least do some basic research. If the landlord is not fixing your fridge, you first might want to look up whether the landlord is required to fix appliances in your area. The judge will not expect a self-represented person to know the law, so they are likely to show sympathy. But it’ll be embarrassing if one your accusations turns out to be entirely legal under the law. If you can afford it, you may want to hire a lawyer for just an hour or half hour to get their quick thoughts on how you should prepare for your case.
Tell Your Story
Judges hate when people waste their time or come off as petty. Don’t try to accuse your opponent of every petty, technical problem when there’s a serious problem. Focus on telling your story. Explain what happened and when and where it happened. Be prepared to briefly explain how it negatively affected you. For example, if your apartment didn’t have power for a week, make sure to explain how you used candles to see where you’re going, how your lack of a working alarm clock made you late, and that your daughter’s computer was constantly dying and she needed to complete an assignment. In small claims or housing court, it’s effective to rely on emotional appeal – the landlord will ask you to stop when they’ve heard enough. There may be other people attending the case (usually, they’re just sitting in the pews waiting for their turn). If you are not a strong public speaker, it’s okay to write down your story on a paper and read from it. But don’t make it too long and be prepared for the landlord to cut you off and ask you questions.
Lawyers always tell you to document everything – this is why. If you claim you paid for something and the opponent says you didn’t, the judge will ask you to present evidence. Any emails, text messages, pictures, bank statements, or anything at all may help. Depending on the court, you may be able to bring a witness, but that’s going to be a pain for you and them. So to the extent that you can prove anything relating to your accusations of wrong-doing, make sure you bring that documentation with you. You never know what you’ll be asked for, so if you have a big file of papers, make sure it’s tabulated or otherwise organized.
Disclaimer again – it’s best to have a lawyer! But if doesn’t make sense for you, then you can maybe get by on your own if you follow these tips.