What if You Can't Appear on the Court Date?
If you are the defendant in a case, or if you are the plaintiff and the defendant has filed a counterclaim, it is absolutely essential that you appear in court to tell your side of the story. Failure to do so will probably result in a judgment against you.
If, for some reason, you will not be able to appear in court on the scheduled hearing date, notify the court administrator immediately and request that the date and/or time be changed. If you have a good reason, a continuance may be granted and the hearing will be rescheduled for a later date. The request for a continuance must be made in writing at least five business days prior to the hearing date. You may be ordered by the court to pay additional costs. Court administrators can only give one continuance to you.
If you miss the court hearing, you may be sent a notice that a default judgment will be entered against you if you do not reopen the case before the judgment becomes final.
How Do You Prepare for the Hearing?
Although conciliation court hearings are informal, you should be prepared to present your case. Before you go to court:
- Organize your presentation to make it as clear and complete as possible. Remember, your testimony may be the most important information you have.
- Prepare a list of facts you wish to present.
- Make a detailed chronological history of the problem.
- Contact people who have witnessed important aspects of the problem, and ask them to be present at the hearing and ready to testify under oath. (If a witness is unwilling to appear, you may subpoena the witness. You can get a subpoena from the court administrator by paying a fee for each person you would like subpoenaed. It is your responsibility to see that the subpoena is delivered to the witness by someone other than yourself. Subpoenas may not be delivered on a Sunday or a legal holiday. Further, you may have to pay a basic fee plus round trip mileage to the courthouse to any witness you subpoena.)
- Understand that written statements and affidavits of persons not present in court have very little value.
- You can also subpoena documents relating to your claim if the defendant or some other person has them but will not give them to you.
What Should You Bring to Court?
Bring all evidence (and witnesses) necessary to prove your case.
Be prepared to show the judge:
- Contracts or agreements you made with the defendant. (Example: If your claim is against a landlord for recovery of a security deposit, bring the lease.)
- Letters you and the defendant have exchanged relating to the problem. (Example: If you wrote to the defendant asking for the money, or if the defendant wrote to you admitting the debt, bring these letters.)
- Bills, canceled checks, warranties, receipts, or written estimates having to do with your claim. (Example: If you are claiming your television set is defective beyond repair, bring original receipts, a copy of the warranty, and estimates from repair shops.)
- Photographs of the damaged property. (Example: If your car was damaged by the defendant, bring photos that show the extent of the damage.)
What Happens at the Hearing?
You and the defendant will appear before a judge (or in some counties, a referee). The judge may encourage you to settle the case. The judge will first ask you, the plaintiff, to state your case. Tell your story calmly, clearly, and concisely. Use the notes you've prepared ahead of time to make sure you have all of your main points. Be sure to explain how you arrived at the specific damage figure you are claiming and show the judge evidence that supports your claim, such as bills, receipts, estimates, contracts, photos, etc.
When it is the defendant's turn, do not become angry or interrupt. Be courteous at all times. If you disagree with something the defendant says, ask the judge if you may respond to the defendant's statement. The judge may ask questions of you, the defendant, or witnesses who are present.
If you have never been to conciliation court, you may want to attend another hearing ahead of time to see what happens. Conciliation court hearings are open to the public. Your visit should help you know what to expect and how to prepare your own case.
What if You Don't Appear for the Hearing?
All parties should appear! If you appear and the defendant does not, the judge may enter a default judgment for you. It means that you have won (the "judgment" is in your favor) by default. If you do not appear for the hearing, the court may dismiss your claim or award a default judgment against you. This may happen even if you originally brought the claim.