We here at Abnormal Use are no strangers to the courtroom. Recently, we have tried a string of cases in magistrates court – South Carolina’s venue for litigating small claims. While the claims may be small (the jurisdictional limit is $7,500), the experience can produce just as many teachable moments as those in the circuit court. Accordingly, we have compiled a few tips for those navigating the perilous venue.
Prepare, then be prepared to toss it out.
Like any other trial, you fully prepare your case. Don’t think that because the claims are smaller you can just roll out of bed and be successful. You owe it to yourself and your client to treat all cases as if they are worthy of the Supreme Court.
With that said, be prepared to trash anything you planned after trial begins. In South Carolina, like many jurisdictions, there is no discovery in magistrate court. No interrogatories. No depositions. No pretrial disclosures. Most often, every witness or exhibit presented by the other side is of the “surprise” variety. You must rely on your own informal discovery, the main source of which is often your client.
When you discover that your client’s version of events may be different (and perhaps, wrong) than that of the plaintiff, you must be prepared to alter your trial strategy on the fly. This often means discarding those materials you tirelessly prepared to counteract all of those unexpected surprises. No matter how much you prepared, something unexpected will arise. Be thankful you prepared enough to recognize it.
Manage the courtroom.
Often times, small claims court involves pro se plaintiffs. On the one hand, trying cases against pro se litigants is easier because they may not be as prepared to present their cases as seasoned lawyers. On the other, it adds a whole new set of unexpected difficulties. Judges may give pro se parties some slack, but sometimes, their generosity knows no bounds. If the pro se plaintiff answers all of your questions on cross-examination by asking you the same question, instruct her that you get to ask the questions. If someone from the peanut gallery tries to answer the questions for her, be prepared to instruct him on procedure – you may be the only person that can do it (particularly if the presiding judge is not a lawyer). Most of all, don’t be afraid to remind the judge that while the rules are relaxed, they haven’t been discarded altogether. Just because the pro se plaintiff forgot to introduce any of his evidence during trial, it does not mean that he should be allowed to hand deliver it to the jury during deliberations.
Expect the unexpected (sensing a theme here?).
The unexpected is not limited to an unknown witness or unanticipated testimony. The unexpected can also come from things unrelated to the trial itself. Don’t be surprised when you have to walk around a giant bag of pecans every time you return to your seat. When the pro se plaintiff’s father yells at the judge that he has to use the bathroom during your closing argument, just roll with it. After all, these unexpected happenings make for the best stories.