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Going to Court

Attend All Court Proceedings and Respond to All Papers You Receive. Attend all hearings that are scheduled in your case. If you don’t show up, a default judgment will be entered against you even if you filed an answer or appearance earlier. If you cannot attend, send someone else to ask for a delay (usually called a “continuance”) and explain the reasons why you could not attend the hearing that day (such as illness, family emergency, preexisting and unavoidable work conflict, or unusual transportation problems). In small claims court, you usually only have to go to court once to resolve the case.

Whenever possible, let the collector or the collector’s attorney know in advance if you have a good reason for not attending the hearing. Often, they will agree to a delay in the case. If a delay is agreed to, you should put it in writing in the form of a letter confirming the agreement.

Summary Judgment. In more formal courts, either side can ask for a judgment before the trial even begins if there are no important facts in dispute. This is usually called a “motion for summary judgment.” If you receive a copy of a motion for summary judgment, you must respond to it or the collector may automatically win the case. Describe all facts that you dispute that relate to whether this collector has the right to obtain a court order against you for the debt. Most courts require the disputed facts to be stated in affidavits signed under oath by people who have first-hand knowledge of the facts. When you file a response, always send a copy to the collector’s lawyer.

Preparing for a Court Hearing. At the hearing, both sides tell their story to a judge or magistrate. In many small claims courts, the hearing is informal. Usually, the collector first explains why it is suing. Make sure the collector gives the judge a copy of the credit contract as well as the accounting records showing any missed payments. If the collector is not the original creditor to whom you owed the money, make sure the collector shows sufficient paperwork that it in fact is the current owner of the debt.

You then present your response. Be as prepared as much as possible, preferably with the advice of an attorney. Here are some tips to help you prepare:

  • Bring all relevant documents. This is usually your only chance to present documents, and courts pay a lot of attention to written documents. Try to have extra copies available, because the court and the collector will keep copies of the documents you present.
  • Bring witnesses if there are any. Witness testimony may be important, especially if the witnesses are not friends or relatives. For example, if the dispute is about an item which does not work properly, a mechanic or another witness can testify from their own experience in using that item.
  • Do not rely on written statements of your witnesses because the court usually will not allow them into evidence. Have the witnesses attend the trial.
  • Consider going to court beforehand to get a feel for where the courtroom is, how the court works, how people dress, when to stand, how to tell when your case is called, where you sit during the hearing, whether a microphone is used and how to use it, the judge’s personality, whether an interpreter is available, etc.
  • Take a companion to the actual hearing if possible, to offer emotional support, to give you feedback and other help, keep track of your documents, and offer a second opinion if you must respond on the spot to a settlement offer.
  • Prepare a written chronological report of events in advance, as well as a checklist of points to make and documents to give to the court, and bring the report with you. Judges may be impatient if you are disorganized. Mention all of your defenses and counterclaims.
  • Assume that the judge has not read any of the documents already presented to the court and does not know the facts of the case. Start at the beginning and tell your story in a clear and organized fashion in the order it happened.
  • Do not be afraid to be forceful, but do not make personal attacks on individuals, including lawyers, witnesses, or the judge. A display of anger will usually hurt you more than it helps.