How to Represent Yourself in Small Claims Court in South Carolina

As a lawyer in Charleston, I’ve helped many clients in South Carolina’s Small Claims Court. Having said that, Small Claims Court (also known as Magistrate’s Court) is designed to make it easier for people to handle their legal claims without the expense of hiring an attorney. This article explains how to handle yourself in Small Claims Court and lays out 5 important tips for helping the court to make the right decision in your case.

What is Small Claims Court in South Carolina?

Small Claims Court, otherwise known as Magistrate’s Court, is a civil court that is set up for the “just, speedy, and inexpensive determination” of civil cases. In Small Claims Court, you can file a claim, such as for breach of contract or for property damage, where the value of the claim is $7,500.00 or less. Also, you can request that a jury decide your case (a jury trial) or that the magistrate judge decide your case (a bench trial).

In Small Claims Court, the rules are more relaxed than in other courts such as the Court of Common Pleas. According to Magistrate Court Rule 13, trials should be conducted in an informal manner and the South Carolina Rules of Evidence shall apply but shall be relaxed in the interest of justice.” Also, Rule 13 provides that if you don’t have a lawyer, the court will help you along by “question[ing] the parties and witnesses in order to assure that all claims and defenses are fully presented.”

How Do I File a Claim in South Carolina’s Small Claims Courts?

The answer is easy. Simply go to your local magistrate’s office, explain your claim to the magistrate (or the magistrate’s clerk), pay a small filing fee, and the magistrate’s office will help you fill out the paperwork and send it to the party that you are making a claim against.

What Do I Do If Someone Has Filed a Small Claims Court Case Against Me?

If you’ve received a Small Claims Court Complaint against you, then you have thirty (30) days to answer the complaint (if the value of the claim is $25 or less, then you have five (5) days to answer). You can answer the complaint either orally or in writing. I recommend answering in writing – a short letter to the court explaining your position will do.

Don’t Forget to Answer the Claim On Time

If you don’t answer the claim on time, then the Small Claims Court will enter a Default Judgment against you which means you lose “by default,” and the claimant wins the case.

In addition to answering the claim, you may file a Counterclaim assuming you have grounds for it. For example, let’s say your neighbor sues you Small Claims Court and claims that he paid you an agreed-upon $400 to paint his fence but that you didn’t finish the work. However, you did finish the work, and your neighbor agreed to pay you $500. In that situation, you could make a Counterclaim against your neighbor for the remaining $100.00.

What is the Best Way to Present My Case in Small Claims Court?

If you are going to present your case in Small Claims Court without a lawyer, then here are 5 IMPORTANT THINGS to do to make sure that you do a good job of presenting your claim and to convince the court to rule in your favor:

1) Prepare All of Your Documents and Exhibits – if you are going to show the court any documents or exhibits, such as emails, letters, photographs, etc., make sure you bring 4 copies of each – 1 for the judge, 1 for the witness (if you are asking questions), 1 for the other party, and 1 for yourself.

2) Subpoena Witnesses & Documents – If your witnesses are “friendly” to you, they will voluntarily make time to come to court on your behalf. However, you may need some witnesses who will not volunteer to come to court. Also, you made need documents or other evidence from other persons to prove your case. In that situation, you need to contact the court ahead of the trial date (preferably 10 days or more) to ask the court to subpoena witnesses and/or documents to trial. You will need to give the court the full names of the witnesses, their home address for the court to serve the subpoena, and a description of documents or other evidence to bring to court.

Just because you ask for a subpoena doesn’t mean the court will issue one. For example, the court won’t subpoena witnesses who live more than 100 miles away from the court. Also, the court won’t subpoena documents that require someone to spend many hours gathering and copying documents for court. Ask for what you truly need and nothing more.

3) Don’t Interrupt – Few things irritate the court more than persons who interrupt the process. Never interrupt the judge, a testifying witness, or the other party while they are speaking. The court will give you plenty of opportunities to speak, to testify, to ask questions of witnesses, and to argue your case.

4) Don’t Argue with the Judge – There is a fine line between being persuasive and being argumentative. When you’ve made your points, quit before the judge turns angry or hostile. At all times ensure that your tone and body language remains respectful. If you argue with the judge, then prepare to lose!

5) Watch Out for Hearsay – Although the Rules of Evidence are relaxed in magistrate’s court, the rule against hearsay may still be enforced by the judge. Essentially, you can’t testify as to what someone else said (besides the other party to the lawsuit) if that person isn’t in court. Let’s say that you want to sue a mechanic who charged you to replace an engine part that a second mechanic later looked at and told you the party was working fine and didn’t need replacement. To prove your case, you couldn’t testify as to what the second mechanic told you (that the part was fine) because that would be hearsay. Instead, you would need to get the second mechanic to court (voluntarily or by subpoena) to testify in person.

Should I Hire a Lawyer to Help Me in Small Claims Court?

The answer to that question really depends upon how much a lawyer would charge you vs. the value of your claim (or the claim against you). In many cases where the value of your claim is much less than $7,500, then hiring a lawyer may be more costly than its worth. Also, the answer depends on how complicated your claim may be in terms of the number of witnesses and documents or complications in the law. In those situations, I would suggest hiring a lawyer for a half-hour or an hour to go over your case including how you intend to prove it or defend it. During that time, the lawyer should be able to give you pointers about your case, what proof you’ll need, how to use your proof, and how best to handle the claim yourself in South Carolina’s Small Claims Court.

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