Information Every Clerk Needs for Your Small Claims Case - dummies

Information Every Clerk Needs for Your Small Claims Case

By Judge Philip Straniere

Your small claims paperwork will proceed more smoothly if the clerk has all the information he needs. Some information comes from the form you fill out to get your case started. You may need to volunteer other information yourself to help the clerk help you, which is another reason to be prepared before you show up in the clerk’s office.

Do you want a jury trial?

One of the questions the clerk may ask you or that you must answer on your claim form is, “Do you want a jury trial?” The proper answer is “no.” If you answer “yes,” you’ll not only have to pay a larger filing fee, you’ll also be subjected to the humiliation of the clerk and everyone else in their cubicles laughing at you.

Cop and lawyer shows on television certainly make it look easy to try a case in front of a jury, but looks can be deceiving. If you’re filing in small claims court, you don’t want a jury trial for a number of reasons including the following:

  • Most states prohibit jury trials in small claims actions. If you think you want a jury trial, check with the clerk to see if you can even do it.

  • Additional costs may be imposed by the court system in a jury trial.

  • Opting for a jury trial may delay your case because it puts an additional strain on the court facilities and causes scheduling problems with the regular civil calendar.

  • Picking a jury is complicated and, unless you’re a lawyer, probably way beyond your skill level. Even many lawyers don’t know how to pick a jury well, and cases are won and lost in the jury selection process. In fact, an entire industry has grown up around the jury selection process, with experts brought in to instruct attorneys on how to pick a favorable jury.

  • The judge isn’t going to be thrilled about having a novice non-attorney conduct a jury trial. A case with a novice attorney means extra work for the judge because he has to make sure that the lawyer’s inexperience doesn’t result in an unjust outcome; when a non-lawyer tries a case before a jury, the role of the judge gets even more difficult.

  • If you decide on a jury trial without using counsel and the defendant gets an attorney, the case can turn against you in an instant. Think the battlefield is going to be level if you’re up against an attorney in front of the jury? No amount of television watching can prepare you for the real thing.

  • Although the aim of a small claims court proceeding is an outcome based on substantial justice, a judge hearing a jury trial may be less likely to cut you slack when you make mistakes, less likely to ask questions to witnesses when you get tongue-tied, and less likely to relax evidence rules.


If you don’t speak English, you’re entitled to have someone who speaks your native language assist you. Either the plaintiff or the defendant can request an interpreter.

If you’re the plaintiff, tell the clerk you need an interpreter when you file your complaint. If you’re the defendant:

  • If no written answer is required, notify the clerk before the scheduled trial date of the trial.

  • If you need to file a written answer include your request for an interpreter when you file your answer or on the first date scheduled by the court for the parties to appear on the case.

If you have a witness who needs an interpreter, you must also notify the clerk of this. Failure to have an interpreter present can result in the case being adjourned until you get one. If you know the defendant will need an interpreter because the two of you conversed in your native language when you entered into your contract, let the clerk know that when you file your papers.

In some courts, such as New York City, the interpreters are all either court employees or private individuals who have been certified by the court as interpreters of a particular language and are compensated by the court system.

In some states, the rules permit a family friend or relative to serve as an interpreter. The problem with this situation is that no one knows if the person is translating accurately, which can be a problem if the case involves legal or technical terms. There may not be an accurately descriptive word in that person’s native language and the untrained interpreter may not translate correctly.

If it becomes obvious that your opponent needs an interpreter, don’t oppose an adjournment so that one can be found. One of the easiest ways to trigger a retrial is for your opponent to say, “I don’t understand English” when filing his appeal.

Proclaim yourself a senior citizen

Some small claims courts have special rules for senior citizens. In places where small claims court is in session primarily at night, seniors may be permitted to bring their cases in the day. Courts recognize that seniors may have trouble traveling at night so sometimes accommodations are made. If you’re a senior, check with the clerk of your local small claims court for any special rules that apply to you.

Make the clerk aware if you have a disability

If you have a disability that affects your ability to file or present your case at trial, the court system must take steps to accommodate you. If you have trouble walking and need a wheelchair-accessible courtroom, if you’re hearing impaired and need amplification or a sign-language translator, or if you’re visually impaired and need a visual interpreter, let the court know in advance so that an accommodation can be made.

If you wait until the date of trial, it may result in the case being adjourned.

If you’re illiterate, let the clerk know this also.