How to Raise Objections in Small Claims Court - dummies

How to Raise Objections in Small Claims Court

By Judge Philip Straniere

You may need to make an objection during your small claims trial. Anytime you see a trial on television or in a movie, you can bet at some point one of the lawyer characters will jump up and yell, “I object.”

If both you and the defendant in your trial are unrepresented, it’s unlikely that an objection will be made to your case. On the other hand, if the defendant has a lawyer, there’s a good chance you will hear objections being made. The lawyer may actually be raising a legal point or may be doing it to spook you and get you off your game.

On the other hand, if you think something doesn’t sound right, don’t just sit there and say nothing. Politely say something like, “Your Honor, that’s not right” or, “She wasn’t there, so how can she say that?” If you do it in the right way, you’re really making an objection without calling it one.

What is an objection?

Basically, you make an objection when you believe that the evidence being presented to the court shouldn’t be heard or considered for some reason.

Sometimes lawyers object just because something doesn’t sound right. They may not know why the evidence should be questioned but have a gut feeling that the evidence being offered is objectionable. When there’s an objection, the judge may ask the person making it to explain what the basis for the objection is. This is a good time to listen to what is going on.

You will have no idea what you did wrong, if anything, but if the judge asks the lawyer to explain the objection, you may learn what you did wrong and be able to correct it yourself.

If you don’t understand the explanation, you can ask the judge to explain what’s going on. The problem with this is that the judge has to balance her role between being the person who decides the case and providing legal assistance to either side, so you may not get an answer from the judge that will help you if she agrees to answer at all.

If you make a scene, the judge may not tell you what’s wrong. If you can’t figure it out, you may find yourself trying to correct something you don’t understand and make things worse or not get a key piece of your evidence into the record.

On the other hand, if you look completely befuddled, the judge may actually ask the necessary questions for you to get your evidence into the court record and move the case along, especially if the issue is something the judge needs to know about in order to decide the case fairly.

How to raise common objections

Certain objections are commonly raised in court. Some common objections you may hear include:

  • No foundation: This means you haven’t established the authenticity or accuracy of a piece of evidence. For example:

    • You offer a photograph as evidence without saying what’s in it, who took it, and when it was taken.

    • A witness starts testifying without explaining how or why she knows anything about the matter at hand.

    • You have a person testifying as an expert without asking questions to establish her expertise.

  • Relevancy: The legal term for “Who cares?” For example, in your fender-bender trial, you testify that you were coming from your favorite restaurant before the accident, and include testimony as to who was at the restaurant, why you like it, and what you ate. All this information isn’t relevant in establishing whether you or the other driver had a green light.

    On the other hand, information about your behavior in the restaurant may well be relevant if the issue is whether you were intoxicated and if there are witnesses to that.

  • Asked and answered: You already asked the witness that question and got an answer. You may want to ask the same question either to make sure the judge got the point or because you didn’t like the answer from the witness. The other side will object because it hurts their case or because they don’t want the witness to change what was a favorable answer.

    Generally, if the judge didn’t understand an answer, the judge will ask the witness to clarify the response.

Ruling on objections

When an objection is made, the judge has to make a ruling. The judge may:

  • Sustain the objection: The judge agrees that the objection is valid. You will be required to ask the question a different way or to try to get the information or document into the record in some other way. In small claims court, the judge may not use the word sustain; she may say something like, “Don’t answer that question” or “You can’t use that document.”

  • Overrule the objection: Overruling the objection means that the question is proper and the witness can answer it or that the document can come into the record. The judge may not say “overruled” but say something like, “I’ll allow it” or “I’ll let it in.”

  • Allow the answer or document into the record over the objection: Allowing the answer in over an objection is common in small claims court. It’s not really the same as overruling the objection, but it has the same effect.

    The judge is really saying, “Yes, your objection is technically valid, but this is small claims court where substantial justice applies and the strict rules of evidence don’t have to be followed.”

    The judge may say she’s allowing it into the record but will take the objection into account when deciding what weight or influence to give to it.