Baldwin & Briscoe P.C.
301-862-4400
22335 Exploration Drive Ste. 2030
Lexington Park, MD 20653
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How to Represent Yourself in Small
Claims 
Court

  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.

  Filing the Complaint

  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. 

http://www.courts.state.md.us/district/forms/civil/dccv001f.pdf

  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 your complaint.

  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 contested.

  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 complaint.

  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 the witness:

  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. Black.

  “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 “case-in-chief.”

  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.

The information 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.

 

The Law Offices of Baldwin & Briscoe, P.C. also offers these services:

Bankruptcy and ForeclosureBusiness LawCivil LitigationCriminal DefenseEmployment, Disability, and Consumer RightsFamily LawGovernment Contracts LawIntellectual Property, Personal InjuryReal Estate, Social Security Disability & Workers’ Compensation and Wills, Trusts, & Estates

 


Contact Us

The Law Offices of Baldwin, Briscoe & Steinmetz, P.C.

22335 Exploration Drive

Suite 2030

Lexington Park, MD 20653

301-862-4400 Phone

301-862-3009 Fax

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Our Attorneys

Samuel C.P. Baldwin, Jr., Esq.

Janice Briscoe, Esq.

Richard J. Steinmetz Jr., Esq.

David J. Hebb, Esq.

Sandra Kaufman Jonasen, Esq.


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With an office conveniently located in Lexington Park, The Law Offices of Baldwin, Briscoe & Stienmetz, P.C. serves clients in the counties and cities of Lexington Park, Leonardtown, Hollywood, Mechanicsville, Loveville, Helen, Breton Bay, Chaptico, Charlotte Hall, Golden Beach, Avenue, La Plata, Waldorf, Newburg, Port Tobacco, Port Charles, Solomons Island, Prince Frederick, Chesapeake Shores, Hughesville, Benedict, Nanjemoy, Lusby, Port Republic, St. Mary's County, Charles County, Calvert County, Prince George's County, Southern Maryland.


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