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Doing It Yourself Small Claims Court

courtroom.PNGDuring one sweltering summer barbecue in a New Jersey suburb, Manny and his neighbor, Marta, relaxed in the shade and idly talked about their mutual love of woodwork art. Marta mentioned in passing that she was interested in getting a new statue for her mantelpiece, since her old statue of a bear had fallen and cracked. Since Manny was an accomplished carpenter, he agreed to create a new figurine just for her. The two decided on a dog design, based on her favorite pet, and wrote down that Marta would pay $500 when she received Manny's Work. Two months later, after many long hours of work, Manny rang Marta's doorbell and proudly presented his statue. To his dismay, Marta complained that the dog's ears were too short and didn't do her pet justice. She refused to pay the agreed-on price. When attempts at reconciliation ended in heated argument, Manny decided he had no choice than to sue for breach of contract.

Claims under $3,000 for problems like breach of contract, property damage, and back rent are brought in the Small Claims section of the New Jersey Superior Court's Special Civil Part. Some people choose to represent themselves (otherwise known as pro se representation) because paying lawyer's fees may not make sense. If you do this, you first must decide which county court to contact - you need to pick the one the person or company you're suing lives or does business. If no defendant is physically located in New Jersey, then the claim should be brought in the county where the breach or other incident took place.

Small claims forms can be found at njcourts.com. To ensure a smooth litigation process, all information should be provided in a concise manner in your paperwork. You should include all contact information for yourself and the defendants (not including confidential personal identifiers, such as social security numbers or driver's license numbers, unless they are specially required by law or court order), the amount you're suing for, the reasons for the suit and any other pending case between you and the defendant. On these initial forms, be sure to include whether you require a court interpreter (and what language that interpreter should speak in) or any other special accommodations for disabilities. Once you've finished filling out all required information, sign and date the forms and include the entire filing fee before mailing it to the proper New Jersey Special Civil Part Clerk's Office. The forms can also be handed in personally.

The court will then respond with a trial date. Before this date arrives, you should organize your points and written evidence and get the cooperation of any witnesses (no written statements by witnesses, even under oath, will be admitted in evidence). All sides must appear on the scheduled trial date, but rescheduling will be allowed in the case of illness or a serious scheduling conflict. Before the actual trial takes place, the court will try to produce a settlement, where all sides compromise. If a settlement can't be reached, the parties will proceed to trial before a judge. While this can be intimidating, careful preparation and understanding of the court's rules, which can be viewed online, will ensure that you'll get your day in court.

By the way, Manny had a trial and won his case. He did the work and made what the Judge felt was a good enough depiction of Marta's dog, who wouldn't sit still while Manny did his work. Loree Varella, Rutgers School of Law Newark candidate for a JD degree in May 2016 collaborated with me on this blog. She is Associate Editor of the Rutgers Computer and Technology Law Journal and Managing Research Editor of that publication.

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