Preparing for Trial - Small Claims
How Do I Get a New Court Date (Continuance)?
IF YOU ARE THE DEFENDANT:
If you are the defendant, you can request a postponement (continuance) of your trial date if you 1) are unable to appear on that date, or 2) you were untimely served and need more time to prepare for the trial. You can read more about how to do this on the What to Do When You Have Been Sued page of this section.
IF YOU ARE THE PLAINTIFF:
Unable to Serve the Defendant:
If you were unable to serve the defendant you can request a new trial date to continue service efforts. To request that the trial date be reset:
- You must return the service copies of your Plaintiff’s Claim to the court where you filed your case at least three court days before the trial date along with a form called Request to Postpone Trial (SC-150) .
- You will receive your documents back with a new trial date so that you may continue efforts to serve the defendant(s).
- There is no charge to make this request.
IMPORTANT: Failure to timely return the documents may result in your case being dismissed.
Unable to Appear on the Trial Date:
If you have served the defendant, but cannot appear on the trial date, you can ask the judge to change the date. To request that the trial date be postponed:
- Fill out a Request To Postpone Trial (SC-150) , or write a letter
- Have the other parties "served" with a copy of the Request or letter either by mail or in person.
- Have the server fill out a:
- File the Request to Postpone Trial and Proof of Service with the court where the trial is scheduled no later than 10 days prior to the trial. If you file the documents less than 10 days prior to the trial be sure to complete section 5 on the form and attach any supporting evidence you may have that caused the delay in filing.
- Pay a fee at the time you file the documents. If you cannot afford to pay the fee you may fill out a Request to Waive Court Fees.
If you do not receive a written response, contact the court where your case was filed for the status of your Request.
What If I Have a Disability and Need Special Accommodations?
If you have a disability and need help, fill out a Request for Accommodations By Persons With Disabilities (MC-410) and file it with the court as soon as possible, but at least five days before the trial date.
What If I Need an Interpreter?
SELECTING AN INTERPRETER
By law, in California all official court business must be conducted in English. When one of the parties or witnesses in a case does not speak English well, that person will need a court interpreter (who speaks English and the non-English speaker’s first language) so he or she can understand what is going on and talk to the judge.
In some cases (like criminal cases) the interpreter is paid for by the court and may be a court employee. However, in civil cases, with the exception of domestic violence proceedings in Family Law cases, the person needing the interpreter must get and pay for his or her own interpreter or get a friend to help interpret. It is your responsibility to get your own interpreter. You can ask a friend, relative, or someone else to interpret for you when you go to court. Do not ask a child to interpret for you.
Keep in mind that just because someone you know speaks both English and your first language does not mean he or she would be a good interpreter. A court interpreter needs to be familiar with legal terms and concepts in both English and your first language, and most people are not. That is why it is very important you have an interpreter with experience. If you decide to use a noncertified or nonregistered interpreter, such as a friend or relative, have the person read the instructions and duties for interpreting in the information sheet called Foreign Language Interpreter’s Duties-Civil and Small Claims (INT-200) .
To make sure you get an experienced court interpreter, you should consider a professional interpreter who has passed the required examinations and has officially registered and been approved as a court interpreter by the Judicial Council of California. .
There are 2 types of officially-approved court interpreters in California:
- Certified court interpreters: Only interpreters who pass the Court Interpreter Certification Examination and register with the Judicial Council are referred to as “certified" in these 13 languages:
- American Sign Language, Arabic, Cantonese, Eastern Armenian, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Tagalog, Vietnamese, and Western Armenian.
- Registered court interpreters: Interpreters of spoken languages for which there is no state certifying examination are called “registered interpreters of non-designated languages.” They must pass an English proficiency examination, and register with the state’s Judicial Council.
TRANSLATION OF DOCUMENTS
The California Courts website has a list of certified and registered interpreters for oral interpretation. Certified and registered interpreters may also translate documents, however, the California Courts does not test or certify an interpreter's written translation skills. The American Translators Association can also interpret documents.
TIPS FOR USING AN INTERPRETER
Using a court interpreter can be awkward because you have to go through another person to get your information or talk to the judge. Follow these tips when using an interpreter in a courtroom:
- Listen carefully to the interpreter.
- Wait for the interpreter to finish talking before you answer.
- Speak slowly so the interpreter can hear everything you say.
Do not interrupt, even if someone in court says something bad about you. You will get a chance to speak.
INTERPRETERS FOR THE DEAF OR HARD OF HEARING
Note: There are also American Sign Language interpreters and real time captioning for parties and witnesses that are deaf or hard-of-hearing (or have another disability). The court will provide a sign language interpreter or court reporter for you or other accommodation you may need. You can read more about this in the For Persons With Disabilities Requesting Accommodations section of this website to learn about the court's policy for accommodating persons with disabilities. Make your request as soon as possible, but at least 5 days prior to the hearing.
What Should I Bring to My Trial?
Bring all the evidence that will help the judge understand the case. This can be:
- A written contract
- Estimates in writing
- Repair orders
- Canceled checks
- Account books
- Service contracts
- Other documents
If you can, bring originals and not copies. If your case is about damaged property, some judges may ask you to show 2 or 3 repair estimates to prove that your claim is reasonable. Make a map, diagram, or drawing if it will help you explain your case. Do not hesitate to bring papers that you think might help the judge understand the case.
Make 2 copies of any paper you want to give the judge so that you and the other party have a copy.
Can I Subpoena Witnesses or Documents?
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 trial. If a witness cannot go, ask them to write and sign a Declaration (MC-030) . The declaration should say everything the witness wants to tell the judge about your case and is written under penalty of perjury.
NOTE: The judge does not have to accept a written statement, so try to get an important witness to come to your trial.
Talk to your witness before the trial. 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 does not work, you may have to talk to an expert. Get the expert to be a witness at the trial, or ask them to write and sign a Declaration. You may not get your money back for expert witnesses, but you still may want to hire one.
If your witness will not come to court or will not give the court the papers you need, you can subpoena the witness. A Small Claims Subpoena (SC-107) is a court order that makes a person go to court. You can read more about subpoenas, including serving a subpoena and paying witness fees.
You might also need a subpoena so a witness can get permission from their employer to miss work to testify or bring papers to the court.
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 will have to pay more. The witness does not have to go to court if they have not been paid. The person who served the subpoena should be ready to pay when they give the witness the subpoena. If the witness does not ask to be paid, you do not 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 on page two of the Small Claims Subpoena (SC-107) and say exactly what papers you need and why you need them.
The witness has to be served with a copy of the Subpoena and a copy of the Declaration on page two of the Subpoena form (if requesting documents). You or anybody else can give a copy of the subpoena to the witness. After they get a copy, the server fills out the Proof of Service (SC-107) on page 3 of the original Subpoena form. Bring the original Subpoena and completed proof of service with you to the trial.
You may refer to the "How to Get Your Evidence?" document for additional information on obtaining evidence to present or support your case.
Can I Bring Children To Court?
Children may be brought to the court and may stay in "Children’s Chambers" while their caregivers are conducting business with the court. Children’s Chambers is a safe drop-in center for children that lets children be children instead of spending long sessions listening to adult interactions that could be painful or frightening.
You can read more about which courts offer a Children’s Chambers and the guidelines.
What Will Happen at the Trial?
Get to the courthouse 30 minutes early. Check the calendar monitors in the lobby to verify that your case is on calendar and that the courtroom has not changed. Go to the courtroom where your case will be and wait for instructions from the bailiff or court staff.
Many courts use temporary judges (called pro tem judges or referees) to hear Small Claims cases. A temporary judge or referee is a lawyer that has a license to practice law in California with at least 10 years of experience. The temporary judge has to take a training class before hearing cases.
On the day of the trial, you may be asked if you agree, (called consenting or stipulating) to have a temporary judge or referee decide your case. Everyone in your case has to agree. Some courts make you sign a consent form. If someone does not agree, your case will be heard by a permanent judge or court commissioner.
The clerk will call the cases scheduled to see who is there. The parties in the case are "sworn in" so they can testify.
You and the other party or parties may be asked to go outside to talk, try and settle your case, and share evidence. The court also has mediators assigned to Small Claims court. Before the judge takes the bench, mediators will explain the mediation process. Mediation is optional, but encouraged. It gives the parties an opportunity to settle the case without a trial. If mediation is not successful, you still have the right to a trial and you will go back to the courtroom for the judge to hear your case.
Cases are not always called in the order on the court calendar. Cases are usually called in this order:
- Motions and requests. Cases where someone wants a continuance or where there is a settlement.
- Cases when only the defendant is there.
- Cases when only the plaintiff is there.
- Cases where both parties are there and cannot settle their case.
Is It Too Late to Settle before the Trial?
If you settle your case before the trial date and want to "dismiss" (cancel) the case, the plaintiff should fill out and sign a Request For Dismissal (L-1203) . If the defendant has filed a Defendant’s Claim which has also been settled, the defendant also signs the form.
There are two ways to dismiss a case:
- With prejudice (cannot sue again for the same reason). Typically a case is dismissed with prejudice when the parties have completely settled the case or it has been paid in full and there are no outstanding issues.
- Without prejudice (can sue again for the same reason). Sometimes the parties dismiss a case without prejudice because the case has settled but the terms of the settlement may not be completed for a period of time. If one of the parties breaches the terms of the settlement, another Small Claims could be filed if the original case was dismissed without prejudice.
File the form with the court before the trial.
On the day of your trial, the judge may ask the parties to go into the hallway to share evidence and try to settle. Or you may have settled your case using a court mediator. If you reach an agreement, go back in the courtroom and tell the judge that you settled.
Depending on the terms of the settlement, you may have to:
- Dismiss the action, or
- Move the hearing until the terms of your agreement are met, or
- Put your agreement in the court record as a formal judgment .
How to Present Your Case
Listen to the other cases to learn more about how to present your case or defense. Do not leave the courtroom.
Here is 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. If the defendant has filed a Defendant’s Claim, they will present their case at this time. The plaintiff will then be allowed to defend themselves. The judge may ask questions during the testimony of the parties.
- Make sure you say the most important things first. In general, you will 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.
- The judge may keep your evidence. You may have your evidence back in approximately 30 days if no appeal is filed.
Telling your side of the case is not 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.
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 is up to the judge to investigate or not.
Some judges investigate the case after hearing your information in the courtroom. For example, a judge might ask the California Bureau of Automotive Repair to investigate allegations that a car repair shop did fraudulent work. Some judges will talk to contractors to get advice in a case about construction.
Make your points quickly. Try to be objective and do not get emotional. The judge just wants to hear the facts. Do not yell at or insult the other person or witness, no matter how angry you are. At the hearing, just talk to the judge. DO NOT talk to the other party. Be HONEST.
Think about the judge’s question before you answer. If you do not understand the question, ask the judge to explain it. The judge is thinking about laws you might not know about. Do not get angry if the questions are about things you do not think are important. The judge’s questions may be very important to your case.
While the judge asks the other party to explain their side, do not argue or interrupt, even if you think it is a lie or not right. Make a note to yourself so you will remember. You will usually get time to answer.
The law says any money award has to be "reasonable". The judge will want to know exactly how the parties figured out the amount they asked for. The parties have to be able to explain how they got the amount they are suing for. If you are also asking for interest, you should be ready to show how it was figured out. It is a good idea to give the judge a written itemized list of the amount owing. If the party thinks the other person is asking for too much money, they have to be able to explain why. You can say that you only owe part of the money and explain why.
The judge may give his/her decision in court after listening to both sides of the story. Or, he/she may make the decision later. This is called "taking the matter under submission". The court will mail you a copy of the decision. This is called a Notice of Entry of Judgment. If your address is incorrect or has changed, make sure you tell the court your current address before you leave the courtroom.
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 trial. Court costs are what you pay out-of-your-pocket in connection with your case. If you get costs, they will be included in the judgment. You can only get costs back from the person who loses.
Example of costs are:
- Filing fees
- Fees for service of process
- Witness fees
- Fees to serve subpoenas (for witnesses or papers)
The judge may award you other kinds of costs, so bring your receipts to the trial.
What Happens If I Miss the Court Trial?
If you are the plaintiff and you do not go to court, your case will probably be dismissed, unless there are special circumstances. If the case was dismissed "without prejudice," you may be able to re-file your claim. If the case was dismissed "with prejudice," you cannot re-file your claim.
If you are the defendant and you do not go to court, the plaintiff will probably win after they present their case. Unless the case is dismissed or placed off the court’s calendar, the clerk will mail a Notice of Entry of Judgment form to you after the trial so that you know the ruling that the judge made. You can file a Notice of Motion to Vacate Judgment and Declaration (SC-135) if you have a good reason for not going to the trial and there is a judgment against you. For more information to vacate judgment, read "What Happens after the Trial."
How to Get More Information
For more information to help you present or defend your case, check the:
- California Courts website
- California Department of Consumer Affairs
- Superior Court of Orange County Small Claims Division and Self-Help Center Staff