In Mississippi, each county has a justice court. These courts are staffed by not less than two nor more than five part-time judges and other staff. Justice courts hear small civil, i.e., non-criminal claims, and misdemeanor criminal cases. A “small” civil claim is defined as a claim of $3,500.00 or less excluding court filing fees which usually run between $64.00 and $74.00.
A justice court cannot hear a civil case where more than $3,500.00 is being demanded. Debt collectors frequently use justice court to collect their small claims because cases proceed much faster in justice court than other courts and there are other advantages as well. If you are sued in justice court for a debt, don’t panic and don’t ignore it. Following are ten tips to help you deal with the experience.
How to Deal with a Lawsuit for Debt
- You need not hire an attorney to represent you. However, as with all legal matters, the best practice is to seek the assistance of a competent attorney when confronted with any legal matter. You will not receive any favorable treatment because you are representing yourself.
- Don’t ignore the matter. Attend the hearing scheduled in your case. If you fail to attend your hearing, the party suing you wins by “default”. There is a special rule in justice court that requires the Court to enter judgment against you if you fail to attend your hearing after receiving notice of the hearing date. The judge has no choice under these circumstances.
- Dress appropriately for your hearing. You want to be taken seriously and your attire should reflect this desire. It is very difficult to command respect in jeans and a t-shirt.
- The party suing you has the burden of proving their claim against you. You have the right to ask that party to produce the evidence necessary to do this. In debt cases, this means that the party should produce a copy of the promissory note or other proper evidence to prove that: (a) you owe the claimed debt in the first place, and (b) that the amount sued for is the correct balance on the debt. If the party suing you cannot produce proper supporting documentation, you should ask the judge to dismiss the lawsuit “with prejudice”. This means that the party cannot re-file the case against you at a later date.
- Just like the party suing you must produce proper evidence to support their claim, you must produce proper evidence supporting your defense of the claim. For example, if you admit that you owe the debt for but you disagree with the amount being demanded, you should have payment receipts with you at your hearing and be prepared to show and explain the correct balance on the debt. If there is a witness that can help you establish your defense, that witness must appear in court to give live testimony. A note or letter from a witness cannot be considered by the court.
- Always, always, always show the utmost respect for the judge, court personnel, all witnesses, the opposing party, and any attorneys appearing in the case. In the event that any of these persons treat you rudely or disrespectfully, maintain your composure and treat them with respect. Never lose your temper with anyone regardless of how they treat you.
- When it is your turn to testify, always address your testimony to the judge by looking and speaking directly to him or her. Never argue with the opposing party or that party’s attorney. You have the right to ask questions of the opposing party and any witnesses called by the opposing party. Keep your questions direct and relevant to the claims and defenses being considered. Don’t ask questions just for the sake of asking. This tactic really irritates judges. If you have no relevant questions, politely tell the court you have no questions of this witness.
- Unless you are sitting while testifying from the witness stand, you should stand up when speaking to the court. If there is a podium in the courtroom, stand at the podium to address the court.
- Just like the oath says, you must tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. If there are certain true facts which are not favorable to you, be prepared to freely admit these facts to the court. Never try to con a judge. Judges are particularly adept at detecting when a witness is being less than truthful about something. Such a tactic will destroy your credibility with the judge and will likely severely damage your case.
- If the party suing you asks the court for a continuance of the case, tell the court that you do not agree to any further delays. Often, debt collectors come to court minimally prepared or not prepared at all. They assume that you will not contest their lawsuit and that they will win by “default”. When the collector sees you in court and prepared to defend yourself, they ask for more time to get prepared. Don’t let them get away with this tactic. Politely and firmly tell the court that you are present and ready to proceed now. Politely remind the court that the collector is the party who brought the suit in the first place. They have had ample time to prepare.
What If I Have a Judgment Against Me?
If the worse happens and you do have a judgment entered against you, you have 30 days to appeal. Depending on the specifics of your case, it may be a waste of time and money to appeal. A proper decision about a possible appeal is best made with the advice of a competent attorney. Our firm has caring and experienced attorneys who have helped people solve their financial problems for many years. If you are experiencing money problems, we can help.
We meet with clients in the Jackson, Hattiesburg, Vicksburg and Gulf Coast areas in Mississippi. Your first visit with our firm is free of charge. At this visit, we will discuss your situation and identify your options. Often, a consolidation of all of your debts under Chapter 13 is the best option. You can consolidate mortgage payments, car payments, finance company loans, past due taxes, student loans, payday and check cashing loans, credit cards, medical bills and all your other debts into one affordable monthly payment. You are protected from your creditors while you are making these payments. At the end of a three or five year period, you are finished and any amounts you weren’t able to pay are discharged and you will never have to pay these amounts.
In some cases, filing a Chapter 7 straight bankruptcy case may be the best option. This would allow you to eliminate certain types of debt entirely if you qualify. The important thing to remember is that you have choices. We’re here to help you make the right choice for you.