Things to ponder before going to court

With Hawaii Island’s extensive rental housing market, many landlords and tenants in our community are facing a potentially difficult situation. When Gov. David Ige’s moratorium on residential evictions is eventually lifted, they might need help resolving any outstanding payments.

If you are a landlord or tenant thinking of going to court, here are some things to consider.

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Mediation is often your best option. People frequently find themselves wondering why they paid all the attorney and court fees when so many cases settle before trial. If mediation fails, you can still go to court.

In all case types, the court is guided by the rule of law. Each party is given the chance to be heard by a judge who is fair, impartial and upholds the legal rights of everyone involved, regardless of their status, power or role in society. In landlord-tenant cases, this means the court must weigh the tenant’s rights with the landlord’s rights, including the right to payment.

The most common landlord-tenant lawsuits are:

1. Security deposit disputes. These are small claims cases, so attorneys cannot appear for trial unless the attorney is either the landlord or tenant and is representing herself or himself.

2. Evictions. These are regular claims cases, and an attorney may represent you. In civil (noncriminal) matters, including landlord-tenant complaints, you do not have the right to a court-appointed attorney. You may hire one or represent yourself in court.

The rule of law provides that, along with legal rights, everyone has individual responsibilities, including that of effectively presenting your case in court. If you don’t do this, you could face serious consequences, even when you have a legitimate claim. The following suggestions can help you prepare for court, but please recognize that this is not legal advice.

• Write a step-by-step history of what transpired so you can tell your story in a calm, organized way. Judges understand that some people are nervous, but if you jump around and skip steps the judge could have difficulty following your story. Remain calm, be respectful to the judge, court staff and the other party, and you will do well.

• Gather as much evidence as you can to support your story, including printed copies of your lease, receipts, invoices, emails, canceled checks, photos and anything showing what was agreed to or said. Take screenshots of texts and make printed copies — don’t expect the judge to look at your phone.

• Mark all evidence as an “exhibit.” Make copies for the judge, the other party and yourself. Exhibit list forms are available at the courthouse and on the Hawaii State Judiciary website.

• You may subpoena witnesses if it helps your case. Subpoena forms are available at the courthouse and on the Hawaii State Judiciary website.

• If you have witnesses, make arrangements to have them in court to testify on the day of trial. The judge might not give the written statement much weight, even statements made under oath, if the witness is not available for questioning.

• Bring all your evidence to court, and be ready to present your case on the day of trial. At trial, things happen quickly. Your case could be finished within 30 minutes. Be prepared to make best use of the time you have.

If you lose, there are no appeals for small claims. The better you can state your case and provide supporting evidence, the better your chances in court.

It might help to review Hawaii Revised Statutes, Chapter 521, “Residential Landlord-Tenant Code,” and Chapter 666, “Landlord and Tenant.”

For more information, go to the Hawaii State Judiciary’s website and search “Landlord-Tenant Claims,” “Small Claims Questions and Answers,” “Regular Claims,” “Tips on Going to Court” and “Tips for Participating Remotely” at www.courts.state.hi.us/.

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Free legal help on landlord-tenant and other civil matters is available through the courthouse Self-Help Centers. For a consultation with a volunteer attorney search “Third Circuit Self-Help Center,” at www.courts.state.hi.us/.

The Honorable Michelle Kanani Laubach is deputy chief judge of Hawaii’s 3rd Judicial Circuit. In Sunday’s edition, Laubach wrote about the many benefits of mediation.