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The Goal of Substantial Justice in Small Claims Court

One of the goals of your small claims suit is to achieve substantial justice for yourself. Most people are familiar with the statue of Lady Justice standing blindfolded with scales in her hand. Substantial justice is the idea that Lady Justice may be peeking out of the blindfold just to make sure the scale is even. It’s actually a benefit to both plaintiffs and defendants who represent themselves in court.

Just about every state law creating small claims court states that the purpose of the court is to provide “substantial justice” to the litigants. You may be asking yourself substantial as opposed to what, insubstantial? Not exactly.

Substantial justice in small claims court means:

  • The judge or person hearing the case is not bound to follow the strict rules of procedure and evidence.

  • The judge can ignore certain defects in a party’s proof so as to reach a just result.

  • The judge is not locked into formal pleading and proof requirements expected in other parts of the court.

In other words, certain rules may be bent so as to do justice in a particular situation. Remember, I said bent, not broken.

The fact that the rules of small claims courts aren’t as rigid as in other courts doesn’t excuse either you or your opponent from having at least some semblance of a claim or defense. It means that if something wasn’t presented according to the rules of evidence, a judge can still consider the material in making a decision.

All too frequently a plaintiff comes in, claiming the defendant home improvement contractor didn’t install the new kitchen properly. I ask, “Assuming what you’re telling me is correct, what are your damages; that is, what will it cost to fix the problem?”

The usual response is “I have pictures” and “Isn’t that what you do, judge?” To which I say, “If I knew what it cost to install kitchens, I’d be doing that for a living and making some real money instead of waiting 13 years for the legislature to raise my pay.”

In other words, the fact that you didn’t realize that as the plaintiff you have to prove your case is something the judge can’t magically fix — no judge can consider evidence that doesn’t exist.

Small claims court is designed to insure that the substantive law — that is, the legal rights of the parties — isn’t lost by following strictly procedural rules.

Take another example: Say you’re suing your landlord to get back your security deposit on the apartment you vacated six months ago. You can’t find an original signed copy of the lease or a copy of a receipt, but you have a photocopy of the lease and a bank statement showing the withdrawal of cash on the same date and in the same amount as the security deposit.

If the strict rules of evidence were applied, your case may have to dismissed because you lack all original documents. But under the rule of substantial justice, the judge can accept the evidence you offer as adequate proof and can rule in your favor even if the defendant denied everything.

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