What You Should Know About Clerks for Your Small Claims Case - dummies

What You Should Know About Clerks for Your Small Claims Case

By Judge Philip Straniere

Judges and lawyers just think they control the small claims courtroom, but not so: Clerks do. Newcomers to court often don’t grasp this, and it often causes great sorrow down their path to justice. Before you set foot in the courthouse, keep in mind the following rules:

  • Rule #1: The clerk is the most important person in the room. He also has the most relevant knowledge to help you.

  • Rule #2: Even if you have a law degree from Yale, a medical degree from Harvard, and a PhD from Oxford, Rule #1still applies.

Respect the clerk’s knowledge

Why is the clerk the most important person in the room when you file a small claims suit? Because if you’re rude or disrespectful to the court clerk, you may not get the help you need. You will probably get what the letter of the law requires him to give, but not one thing more.

But more than that, the clerk knows his stuff. He deals with people filing cases every day and is far more familiar with the paperwork and the problems inexperienced litigants encounter than you are. In addition to knowing where the bodies are buried, the clerk also knows the right way to get things done in the courthouse.

The clerk can tell you about errors in your paperwork before you start the process, and thus prevent you from making a mistake that would get your case dismissed, sometimes without even getting to a hearing on the merits.

If you have an attitude with the clerk, don’t be surprised if your incorrect papers get filed and your case winds up getting dismissed by the judge because of those errors. A wrong filing means you have to start over again. Or, in the worst case, it means having your case dismissed by the court with prejudice, which means you can’t restart it.

Get off on the right foot with the clerk

Sometimes it may seem that the clerk is being uncooperative, but this is the exception and not the rule. In urban courts, clerks deal with hundreds of people filing papers every day, and almost all these litigants file papers on their own. Whereas lawyers generally know what they’re doing in court, the average person does not. Dealing with a constant barrage of inexperienced litigants is sometimes frustrating for the clerk.

Clerks deal with people who are angry about being sued, with people who may not be able to understand instructions either because of language problems or some learning disability, and with people who think they are smarter than the clerk and feel that they really should not have to be wasting their valuable time responding to a baseless lawsuit.

You can start off on the wrong foot just by showing how annoyed you are at having to stand in line. Try to chill on the outside, even if you’re seething on the inside. It’s not the clerk’s fault that ten people got in the line before you did. Besides, you probably spend as much time at your local drive-through fast-food joint.

It’s always better to approach the clerk with the attitude that you would appreciate any advice he can offer. Although you don’t want to come across as a bumbling idiot who will need excessive hand-holding during the entire procedure, acting as if you could use a guiding hand will get you more genuine help than a know-it-all attitude. Remember, however, that clerks are not authorized to give legal advice.

Be prepared to meet the clerk

Being prepared isn’t only a good philosophy for Boy Scouts. You win Brownie points with the clerk by having your paperwork ready to file. You are responsible for having all of your information in order when you show up at the clerk’s office to file your papers.

Many small claims courts have books or pamphlets available either at the clerk’s office, by mail, or online. Read the book or review this information before you pay your first visit to the courthouse. If you didn’t go over the rules for your small claims court before you filed your case, it’s imperative that you do so before you appear for your trial.

Many courts also have help centers staffed by lawyers or other volunteers to assist you with understanding the process. Generally they can’t give legal advice but can explain the forms being used, and answer your questions about the small claims court procedure.

Just because you don’t have an attorney doesn’t mean that you won’t be expected to know the rules and what is expected of you, whether you’re the plaintiff or the defendant.

Many courts now permit small claims cases to be filed online. You still have to provide the same information as with a paper filing, but you don’t have to show up at court to do it. Although this saves you the hassle of standing in line, it also distances you from the clerk. If you think you may need some help with filing correctly, see the clerk in person.