How to Represent Yourself in Small
Let’s face it, hiring an attorney costs
money. As seasoned litigators, we are
sensitive to the financial aspects of our client’s cases. “How much will this cost me?” is always a
consideration in evaluating whether or not to hire an attorney to represent you
in court. The truth is that in some
matters, you can effectively present your case to the court without an
attorney. In these situations, it may be
in your best interest to consult with an attorney for advice prior to filing
your claim, or to get some help along the way to make sure that you are ready
for court. This page provides some
general guidelines to help you represent yourself in small claims court. It is not legal advice, but will give
you some basic information on the mechanics of court that can assist you with
whatever situation brings you to small claim court.
In Maryland, as with most jurisdictions, a
court case begins when the plaintiff files a complaint. The complaint is a form or paper prepared by
the plaintiff that specifies (1) what court the case is being filed in ; (2)
who are the parties, i.e. the plaintiff and the defendant; (3) the nature of
the lawsuit, i.e., the facts giving rise to the complaint; and (4) the remedy
that is being sought by the plaintiff in the case. The plaintiff is the person who is suing, or
filing the complaint and requesting that the court provide some type of
remedy. The defendant is the person who
is being sued.
The Maryland Judiciary provides a form, which
any plaintiff can fill out and file with the court. Here is a link which you can click to open up
the form. You can fill out the form
online and print it yourself for filing with the court.
You can file your complaint at the clerk’s
office of the district court which has venue over your case. Venue exists where the defendant resides,
works, carries on a regular business, or habitually engages in a vocation. There are rules which provide for additional
venue as well that are beyond the scope of this page. In a negligence action, you can sue where the
cause of action arose. Usually, the appropriate venue will be obvious based on
the facts of your case. It currently
costs $34.00 to file a small claims action, which must be paid when you file
Once you file your complaint, the court will
generate a summons. A summons is the
document which notifies the defendant that he or she has been sued. In a District Court case it provides the
court date, courtroom assignment and the time of the trial. In District Court cases, the summons has a Notice
of Intent to Defend for the defendant in the case to complete and send back to
the court to let the court and the plaintiff know that the case will be
The plaintiff must serve the defendant with
the complaint and summons for the case to go forward. Service simply means that the summons and a
copy of the complaint are delivered to the defendant, or an adult at their
residence. The plaintiff, as a party to
the case, cannot serve the defendant, but must instead have another adult
provide the summons and complaint to the defendant. Once the defendant is served, the person who
served it should complaint an affidavit of service and the plaintiff must file
this with the court to let the court know that the case will proceed. If you don’t file a return of service with
the court, the court will not know to put your case on the court docket to be
heard by the judge.
If you have a case in which you are requesting
money damages, you can ask the court to enter judgment by affidavit. You must make this request on the complaint-form
which you file with the court. An
affidavit must be made on personal knowledge.
It has to set forth facts which would be admissible in evidence and show
that the affiant is competent to testify to the matters stated in the
affidavit. The affidavit must include or
be accompanied by any supporting documents or statements containing sufficient
detail to show liability and damages in the precise amount of the claim. If your claim involves interest, you must
complete and submit an interest worksheet as part of your complaint. If your claim is based on a note, or other
document, you must include a copy of that document as an attachment to your
When you file a complaint under affidavit, you
only have to appear if the defendant files a notice of intent to defend, or if
the court issues a notice to appear because your affidavit is insufficient for
the court to enter a judgment. In all
other circumstances, you must appear on the date stated for trial on the
summons. The court will notify you by
mail if a notice of intent to defend is filed in your case. Usually, the defendant will also send you a
copy of the notice of intent to defend.
If the defendant is represented by an attorney, they are required to
send you a copy.
If the defendant does not file a notice of
intent to defend, and your case is filed under affidavit, the court will rule
on your complaint on the day of trial.
If the defendant shows up in court, or the court finds that your
complaint is deficient in any way, the case will be postponed and you will
receive a notice from the court of the new date.
Your Day in Court
On the day that your case is scheduled for
trial, you must show up with all of the evidence that you intend to present to
the court. Generally evidence is
presented in two forms. Evidence is
presented through the testimony of witnesses and by the introduction of
exhibits. Each person who is called on
to offer information about your case is considered a witness. Depending on the nature of your case, you may
be the only witness, or you may have multiple witnesses.
If you are the plaintiff in the case, you will
present your side of the case first.
When the case is called, you should be prepared to know who your
witnesses are and what questions you are going to ask. As a party to the case, it is your responsibility
to ensure that the witnesses needed to present your case are present in court
on the day of the trial. You can request
subpoenas from the clerk’s office to ensure their attendance. Subpoenas must be properly completed and
served in the same manner as your complaint.
If you intend to introduce exhibits, such as
photographs, contracts, letters, or other documents, you should make several
copies before you go to court.
Generally, you should provide a copy of each document to each other party
in the case as well as the court. You’ll
want to maintain a copy of each document you present for your own file as well.
You would present your case by calling each
witness who is there to testify about the events giving rise to your
claim. When you call the witness, the
clerk will swear in the witness, and then you can proceed with your
questioning. Court testimony is
presented in a series of questions and answers.
You ask the witness a question related to the case and they answer. The judge will consider all of the testimony
of all of the witnesses before rendering an opinion.
After you have presented each witness, the
party on the other side will have the opportunity to cross examine your
witness. This means that the other party
can ask questions that challenge the credibility of the witness’s
testimony. In most circumstances, the
judge will then allow you to ask the witness some additional questions. Lawyers call this “redirect.”
If you want the judge to consider a document,
such as a photograph or writing, you must introduce it through a witness. To do this, you would ask the witness to
identify the document, and then ask a question or two about it. This is a relatively simple process. For example:
First, you want to ask the judge if you may
approach the court clerk to mark your exhibit, then, direct your attention to
Q: Can you identify what has been marked as Plaintiff’s Exhibit 1?
A: Yes, this is a copy of the contract between Mr. Jones and Mr.
“Your honor, I move to
admit Plaintiff’s Exhibit 1 into evidence.”
In a small claims case, the parties are often
the same persons who will present testimony.
When this occurs, you can simply tell the story of what happened. You must still ask to admit whatever documents
you want the court to consider as exhibit.
Once you have presented all of the evidence in
your case, you should tell the judge that you wish to “rest your case.” When the plaintiff rests, the defendant will
then get to call witnesses and present evidence in the same manner. At the end of the defendant’s case, the
plaintiff has an additional opportunity to put on rebuttal testimony. Rebuttal testimony should be limited to
addressing points that are made by the defendant during his case. Rebuttal testimony is not the time to
introduce new facts into evidence. That
should be done in the plaintiff’s initial presentation, often called their
After both the plaintiff and the defendant
have presented their case, and any rebuttal evidence is presented, the judge
will usually give the parties an opportunity for summation or closing
argument. During your summation, you
have the opportunity to summarize any evidence that was presented during the case
and tell the judge why you believe that he or she should rule in your
favor. It is important that you stick to
the evidence that was presented in your argument. Summation is not the time to introduce new
facts into evidence.
After both parties have presented their
summation, the judge will usually render an opinion. In District Court, the judge will usually
give the opinion to the parties right at the end of the case. The judge will indicate who wins and will
explain how he came to the conclusion that he did. The clerk will mail a written copy of the
judgment to the parties a few days after the trial has concluded.
Burden of Proof
The plaintiff in the case has the burden of
proof. This means that the plaintiff has
to convince the judge of the facts necessary to establish his claim. If the judge is undecided after the evidence
is presented, then the law requires him to rule for the defendant. In most civil cases, the plaintiff’s burden
of proof is by a preponderance of the evidence.
This means that the plaintiff must present evidence to show that it is
“more likely than not” that the things that are alleged in the complaint
happened. In cases alleging fraud, the
standard is “clear and convincing evidence.”
The criminal standard is “proof beyond a reasonable doubt.” As you can see, there is a much lower bar in
a civil case then in a criminal case.
contained on this page is provided as general information and does not
constitute legal advice. The experienced
attorneys at Baldwin & Briscoe, P.C. can assist you with your case, even a
small claims case. Call today to
schedule a consultation with one of our attorneys who can provide information
and advice specific to your situation.
Even if you don’t intend to retain an attorney to represent you in
court, having a consultation can help you better organize and present your case
in court which will increase your odds of success.
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