Small Claims Trial
Small Claims are heard in Courtroom C-403, and all Small Claims court sessions are open to the public. You may attend any of these courtroom proceedings to familiarize yourself with the procedures. The courtroom is opened at 8:45 a.m. and 1:15 p.m., Monday through Friday.
You must prove your case at trial:
- Gather witnesses to testify in your case.
- Write down the facts and details of your case in the order in which they occurred.
- Collect physical evidence, for example, documents, contracts, leases, receipts, canceled checks, rent receipts, I.O.U.’s, sales receipts, diagrams, guarantees, warranties, photos of damaged items, etc. Bring original documents and at least one legible copy of each. Be prepared to show your exhibits to the opposing party, as the Judge may direct you to do this before the trial begins.
For example, if you claim the other party carelessly damaged your car, you may prove your loss by a paid repair bill or by bringing as a witness a qualified car repairman who has inspected the car. Estimates of repair costs are not sufficient for this purpose, unless the persons who prepared them are in court and are qualified (experienced, trained) repairmen.
Witnesses may testify to their personal knowledge and observations that are relevant to the case. Do not bring letters or affidavits from witnesses on the theory that the witnesses could not appear personally, as they are inadmissible. If a witness refuses to attend the trial, you may ask the court to order the witness to come by a subpoena (see Section R of the Guidebook). You may testify as a witness in your own case. You may also call the defendant(s) as a witness(es) and ask questions of them. Be prepared to make a brief but complete statement explaining your side of the case using your physical evidence, if any. It is a good idea to practice ahead of time what you are going to say to the Judge. Write out all questions you want to ask your witnesses.
On the day of your trial, arrive early so you have time to find the courtroom and get organized. If you fail to appear on time for trial, the court may enter a judgment in favor of the other side.
When your case is called, step up before the Judge with your witnesses. Court reporters are not provided in Small Claims cases. If you want a transcript of your trial, you must arrange for a court reporter at your own expense.
If the other side does not show up, the Judge may enter a judgment in your favor but may require you to present proof, so be prepared. If your opponent appears for trial, the parties and their witnesses will be placed under oath and must tell the truth.
The plaintiff will present the case first. The plaintiff should be prepared to tell the Judge the facts and details of the case (see Section Q for information about how to prepare for a trial). The witnesses, if any, should be questioned and all physical evidence given to the Judge. After each plaintiff’s witness testifies, the defendant has the opportunity to also ask questions of them. When the plaintiff finishes presenting his proof, it is the defendant’s turn. The defendant may testify, ask questions of witnesses and present physical evidence to the Judge. The plaintiff has the right to question each of the defendant’s witnesses. The plaintiff and defendant can also question each other.
When presenting your case, be brief and stick to the facts. Use the outline and questions you have prepared. Tell what happened in the order that it happened. Do not interrupt or argue with any witness. Listen carefully so you can tell the Judge why you disagree when it is your turn to speak. If the Judge asks you questions, answer them clearly and directly. Show respect to all court personnel, the opposing party and all witnesses.
After (Judgment & Collection)
The Judge cannot help one party over the other, regardless of the presence or absence of attorneys. However, Supreme Court Rule 286 allows the Judge to hear and decide Small Claims disputes at an informal hearing. During such a hearing, the Judge may ask questions of any witness or party (plaintiff or defendant). In such hearings, the rules controlling procedure and evidence may be "relaxed or loosened" by the trial judge. If this informal hearing procedure is used, at the end of the hearing the Judge will announce the decision and explain the reasons to the parties.
After hearing both sides the Judge will, based upon the law and the facts, reach a decision called a Judgment. The court may award the plaintiff all or part of the money claimed or find in favor of the defendant. The Judgment is in writing and entered on the court records. The Judgment will most often require the losing party to pay the winning party’s court costs.
If Judgment is entered in favor of the plaintiff or the counter-plaintiff, that amount is payable at once and interest begins accruing immediately at the rate of 9% per year. If the losing party (now called the Judgment Debtor) does not pay the Judgment within 30 days, the winning party (now called the Judgment Creditor) may begin legal collection proceedings.
If you decide to begin collection proceedings to enforce your Judgment on your own, you can pick up the Common Collection Sheet from the Circuit Clerk’s office or online at the Lake County Circuit Clerk’s website. Remember, the clerk cannot give you legal advice. Since this area of the law is complex, you may well consider retaining a lawyer to represent you.
If a party disagrees with the Judge’s decision, they may to file a Motion to Reconsider and Notice of Motion with 30 days of the judgment date. Another option available is to appeal a Judge’s decision to the Second District Appellate Court in Elgin, Illinois. There are no ready-to-use forms for a Motion to Reconsider or for an appeal to the Second District Court. You may visit the Law Library and Center for Self-Representation in the courthouse to look at form templates in legal form books. You also may want to seek the advice of an attorney to learn which option might be best for you.