How to Handle Inquests in Small Claims Court - dummies

How to Handle Inquests in Small Claims Court

By Judge Philip Straniere

An inquest is essentially a trial without the defendant being present in small claims court. But it’s important to understand that you can lose an inquest. You don’t just win because you showed up.

For example, if you’re suing a tenant for owing rent after the tenant moved out but don’t bring the lease or something else to prove that the defendant was your tenant and actually owed rent or owed the amount you claim was due, you could lose your inquest for lack of proof.

The three categories of inquests are:

  • Inquest clerk: The plaintiff is suing for a fixed sum, such as the amount on a promissory note, and the defendant doesn’t answer. If the defendant doesn’t answer, the clerk can enter a judgment for the amount sued for in the complaint because it’s a sum of money that can be calculated from reading the complaint.

  • Inquest on papers: The defendant doesn’t answer, but the court requires something more than just the complaint. You may have to submit affidavits as well as other documents to support the claims in your complaint.

    An inquest on papers may involve a defendant who rams his car into a utility pole and the utility sues for the cost of replacing the pole. Proof is needed to establish the accident took place as well as the cost of replacing the pole.

  • Inquest by the court: The defendant doesn’t show up, and you have to go ahead with your case. You have to testify and place your evidence before the judge. It’s a trial without the defendant.

In small claims court, the most common inquest is an inquest by the court because the summons and complaint in small claims court generally does not have to include much detail, so the court wants to see what proof you have to support your claim before it grants you a judgment against anyone.