What is a Conciliation Hearing?

A conciliation hearing is typically a hearing that happens in a court called Conciliation Court.  Many states have a court that they send claims under a certain value to that removes much of the procedure and time that a regular court proceeding requires to resolve smaller disputes more productively.  In some places, this is called Conciliation Court, while in other states this is called Small Claims Court.   Another important feature of conciliation court is the mandatory or suggested alternative dispute resolution options.  In many states, the parties are encouraged to attempt mediation to settle disputes.  A typical district court trial can go on for many months and cause a lot of costs for the parties.  These costs and the time spent can be less than efficient or worthwhile for disputes and cases under a certain amount, as the costs can end up exceeding the amounts that the party bringing the case would recover if they one.  This article will provide an overview of some important concepts regarding conciliation or small claims court, examine the process of a conciliation court hearing, and give tips on how to be prepared for conciliation court.

Important Starting Points

Before moving through the process, there are some important basics of conciliation or small claims court to note.  Because the process varies from state to state, these points will be illustrated with examples from two states to demonstrate how different states conduct the proceedings—California, the state that ADR Times is based in, and Minnesota, the state I practice in.

  • Damage Cap: Conciliation courts usually have a cap on the number of damages that can be recovered by a party in the proceedings.  For example, in California, a natural person is allowed to sue for up to $10,000, and corporations are allowed to sue for up to $5,000.  Conversely, in Minnesota, the cap on all judgments in conciliation court is $15,000; however, this cap is not for the damages requested, only a cap on the damages that a party may actually recover.
  • Mediation: Many states encourage or require parties to attempt mediation before bringing their dispute to small claims court.  In California, mediators are present in the hallways outside of small claims court proceedings and are available for mediation services.  Some counties even require the parties to try to mediate or attest that they have tried mediation before they proceed with the case.
  • Excluded Cases: Certain cases, because of the nature of the case, cannot be filed in small claims or conciliation court.  In Minnesota, title disputes over real property, libel or slander, specific performance, class actions, and other claims may not be brought in conciliation court.
  • Lower Filing Fees: Aside from the time and money saved in the shorter suit, the fees for filing a conciliation or small claims court complaint are much lower than the fees for filing a regular case.  In Minnesota, it costs $65 or more, depending on the county, to file a claim in conciliation court, while it costs $285 or more to file a civil action.  California has different filing fees for small claims court based on the damages claimed with the highest fee being $75.  Filing a civil case in California costs at least $370, but could be more depending on the amount claimed and the complexity of the case.
  • Easily Appealed: A conciliation court is usually easily appealable because the legal standards for appeal are usually not as strict.  In Minnesota, the decision may be appealed within a strict timeline to the district court.
  • Unrepresented Parties: It is common to see unrepresented parties in conciliation court because it allows the parties to save money on the claim and recover more. This is especially true when the claim is relatively small.  An example I often see is an action to recover a security deposit from a landlord.  Security deposits in Minnesota are often not more than $2000.  Usually, when a tenant brings an action to recover a security deposit, paying a lawyer to help in the proceeding.   Parties will occasionally consult with lawyers to help organize and present the case well.
  • Casual: Conciliation or small claims court proceedings are generally more relaxed and informal than standard district court proceedings.  The parties will simply present their evidence and discuss the dispute and damages.  It can feel more like an alternative dispute resolution process than a court proceeding.  The rules of evidence are usually more relaxed and the parties are given many chances to settle the case throughout the hearing.

The Conciliation Court Proceeding

Turning to the process of a conciliation court and what to expect from a hearing, we will begin to discuss the ins and outs of the process of conciliation or small claims court.  Although the conciliation court process looks different in each state, some similarities allow us to create a basic overview of the conciliation court process and what happens in a conciliation court hearing.  As mentioned above, the process is typically much more informal than a district court proceeding and feels more like an alternative dispute resolution process than a court proceeding.  Conciliation court typically follows a process similar to this:

  1. Filing: The party that would like to bring a claim against the other person will file a complaint with the appropriate court.  This begins the process of a conciliation court and alerts the other party to the dispute.
  2. Answer: The other party will usually have the ability to answer the complaint or file a counterclaim.  An answer will either admit or deny the allegations that lead to the damages the complaining party asked for.  A counterclaim allows the responding party to bring a related claim against the filing party for damages.
  3. Preparation: Preparation includes preparing evidence and gathering the appropriate documents, pictures, videos, or witnesses that will prove the case for the parties.  As mentioned above, the rules of evidence are slightly relaxed, so the parties do not need to be as strict about the evidence and witnesses that they present.  This step also includes filing any motions or other documents that the parties would like to submit to the case.
  4. Settlement: As mentioned above, many conciliations or small claims courts encourage the parties to attempt to settle the case.  This can be a mediation conference to aid the parties in their negotiations, or the parties can negotiate and settle on their own.  This step will usually happen during the preparation step, especially when one of the parties’ cases turns out to be weaker than the party initially thought.  In other cases, this can happen before the hearing at the courthouse.
  5. Opening: The judge presiding over small claims court may make an opening statement and explain how the hearing will go.  They may also let the parties make an opening statement to outline the issues at hand and where the parties are in resolving the dispute.
  6. Evidence: The parties will then take turns presenting the evidence that supports their arguments for relief.  This can be presenting pictures or videos about the dispute.  It can be showing the judge a contract that the parties signed that entitles one of the parties to damages.  It may also be bringing in witnesses who have personal knowledge about the dispute that they will testify to in support of one of the parties.  This will typically be the largest part of the hearing and will require the most preparation from the parties.  The judge may also ask the parties and the witnesses questions.
  7. Rebuttals: Once the parties have presented their case, the judge may ask the parties if they would like to rebut any of the evidence that was presented by the other case.
  8. Discussions: The judge may open the floor for the parties to discuss settlement or what they believe they are entitled to or how much they would be willing to accept.
  9. Decision or Advisement: After the judge hears the parties’ cases, the judge will either issue a decision on the spot or take the case under advisement and review the evidence before issuing a decision.  The judge may find for one of the parties over the other or decide that the parties’ claims offset each other.
  10. Appeal: If one of the parties is unhappy with the decision, that party may appeal that decision to the district court and have the case heard in a formal court proceeding, considering the costs of the appeal and the amount in question.

Tips for Preparation

Examining this process tends to be very straightforward, but presenting a case well or understanding the best settlement options requires preparation and understanding.  The rest of this article will provide tips that the parties in conciliation or small claims court can follow to be prepared.

  • Understand the Procedure: Reading this article is already helping you prepare for a hearing.  An important step in preparation is to understand what the process will look like and to prepared to follow the lead of the court.  Preparing the case with the procedure in mind may help with evidence organization and help the parties feel confident moving forward.  A party could also go and observe a hearing to familiarize themselves more with the process.
  • Understand the Law: Understanding the law that affects the case is one of the most important steps.  Applying the law to the facts is the best way to present a clear case to the judge.  This is often difficult without access to much law, but many counties have law help hours where parties can sit down with a lawyer and talk through their case.  The lawyer can give advice, show them the law, and help them organize the case for the hearing.
  • Outline: Preparing an outline to organize the evidence that needs to be presented will help a party move through the evidence in a way that fully presents the evidence and keeps the party on track.
  • Copies: In preparing evidence, it is best to bring the original and provide copies for the judge and the other party to reference.  In some cases, you may need to give these exhibits to the other parties ahead of time.
  • Practice: Practicing the presentation of a case is helpful in a few ways.  It helps a party notice any missing information in the case and ensures that the case is brief and to the point.  It also helps parties feel more comfortable with the presentation and can put nervous parties at ease as they move through the case.
  • Know the Location: Knowing where the case will take place and how to get there is an important step in preparation.  Finding the location and knowing how to get to the courthouse before the hearing will also help soothe nerves before the hearing.
  • Consider Settling: An important part of preparation is to consider what kind of offer would entice a party to settle. This is especially important to consider for parties whose position is either very strong or weak because that will influence the offers that a party will be willing to accept.  In some cases, it will be better to go through with the hearing than it will be to settle, but a party must consider the possibilities to discover this.

It is incredibly important to understand the case and do what works best for the parties to move forward, and that may mean disregarding the tips listed above.  Preparing the case in a way that will help a party feel calm and ready to move forward.

Conclusion

Conciliation or small claims court provides a procedure to resolve disputes that seems to blend the structure of traditional litigation and the flexibility and benefits of alternative dispute resolution.  It provides a forum for parties to resolve cases that would otherwise not be worth the costs of litigation and representation.  Parties, although typically unrepresented, can be fully prepared to present their case and understand the legal implications of the law.  Finally, it provides a place for judicial officers to encourage parties to attempt to settle or mediate cases and frees up the litigation process.  When considering whether a smaller claim is worth pursuing, a full consideration of conciliation court may make the claim more valuable than originally thought.

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