John Roska: First small-claims court date usually not for trial

Q: I got summoned in a small claims case. What happens at the first court date? Do my witnesses have to come to court then?

A: There may be some counties that hold small claims trials on the date set in the summons, but they're rare. Outside those rarities, you won't need to bring your witnesses or evidence to the first appearance.

That's because most local rules say the first court date in a contested small claims case will not be a trial. Instead, the "first appearance" is to let the judge know that the case is contested, so a trial can be scheduled. Trials are then scheduled for some later date.

For example, the rules for Champaign County, and for the other five counties in the 6th Judicial Circuit, say that the first appearance date in a small claims case "shall not be the date of trial." Most other circuits have a similar rule.

But, if you're outside the 6th Circuit, call the local circuit clerk before your first court date to be sure. Ask them what happens at the first appearance in a small claims case. See if they'll give you an idea of when the next date will be, and whether that next date will be the trial.

The first appearance in a small claims case is designed to let the judge know if the case is contested. If you want a trial, you must show up and "deny" the claim against you.

If you can't make the first court date in person, you can also file a written answer. But make sure to file that well ahead of time, so the judge will see it on the first appearance date and know the case is contested.

If you don't show up for the first appearance, or file a written denial, you'll lose by default. The other side will get whatever they sued for.

If you do show up, and deny the claim against you, another court date will be scheduled. Make sure you know what that next court date will be. It could be a trial, or just another intermediate step.

In Champaign County, for example, the next court date after the first appearance is usually a "status check." That second court date is not a trial, so you don't need to bring your witnesses or evidence to that "status check" either.

You can try avoiding a status check by specifically asking the judge to skip it and set a trial. But you may get a status check anyway.

Status checks are supposed to give the parties a chance to settle. If they don't, they come back to court for the status check, and schedule a trial for a later date.

The actual trial date is when you'll finally need your witnesses and evidence. Then, the person suing you goes first. Then, it's your turn. Prepare ahead of time what you want to say, and how to have witnesses testify in question-and-answer form.

Procedure in eviction cases is usually the same: first appearance, followed by a trial later on.

John Roska is a lawyer with Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation. You can send your questions to The Law Q&A, 302 N. First St., Champaign, IL 61820. Questions may be edited for space.

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