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Getting Help
While many small claims courts don't allow attorneys in the courtroom, consulting with a lawyer before even filing your case can help. A lawyer can brief you on the law in your state and give specifics, such as any statute of limitations. A lawyer also knows if you can ask for extra damages under state law. For example, some states allow someone harmed by a consumer protection violation to collect up to three times the actual damages.

A lawyer may also help you figure out if you'll collect any judgment. If the other party doesn't have a job or any assets, a small claims case may be a waste of time.

A lawyer can also help you organize your case, and give you tips on strategy and tactics.

If you can't afford a lawyer because of the small amount of money involved, check out free legal assistance from a local legal services office or a law school legal clinic.

What's Next?
If you decide small claims court is for you, check the government listings in your phone book to find the one nearest you. In some states, you must file in the small claims court district in which the other party lives. Ask about filing fees and how much it will cost to serve the other party.

You'll need to go to the small claims court to file a complaint, which will include the person's name and address; a short statement of the basis for your claim, including any relevant dates; and the exact amount of money owed to you.

The complaint has to be served on the other party, usually by certified mail or by a process server. Some small claims courts have their own process servers. The court will expect you to pay any service fees.

After the other party receives the complaint, he or she will file and serve you with a response to the complaint and any counterclaims against you. For instance, if you're suing a former landlord to get your security deposit back, he may counterclaim against you to collect money he paid for repairs.

In some small claims courts, the parties must go through mediation or arbitration before any court hearing.

Verify the date and time of your court hearing, and let the court know ahead of time if you need an interpreter or some other accommodation.

You can tip the scales of justice in your direction by getting organized:

Organize your thoughts. Make detailed notes on what happened, preferably in chronological order.
Collect the evidence. Try to back up your case by collecting records, bills, receipts, canceled checks, copies of contracts and written agreements, photos, estimates, accident diagrams and letters written back and forth between the parties.
Talk to witnesses about what they saw or know. Are there people who saw the accident? Are there experts such as repairmen who have specialized knowledge that will help you?
In some states, small claims judges will allow witnesses to submit sworn statements if they're unable to appear in person. Usually, however, a witness' presence is required — and preferable. Arrange to have your witnesses to court on the day of the hearing, and write out the questions you need to ask each witness ahead of time.

If there are witnesses who won't cooperate, you can arrange for the small claims court to subpoena them. You can also have the court issue what's called a "subpoena duces tecum" for a witness to produce specific documents at court. In order to subpoena witnesses, the court must have their names and addresses well ahead of the hearing date.