Justice courts are the jurisdiction in which most landlord/tenant issues are resolved, and they are not nice places for tenants to be in. Certainly any tenant who has been behind in his rent and has gone to justice court has no doubt observed the quick, summary nature of the proceedings. Most cases last barely a few minutes before the gavel comes down.
Justice courts are particularly problematic for tenants who have legitimately invoked their rights under the Arizona Residential Landlord and Tenant Act. Despite giving proper notice to invoke tenant remedies, if a tenant does not know how to present his case in justice court, he can (and probably will) find himself evicted despite his having followed the law. Getting evidence into the record is often an exercise in futility. So, even if you want to: make repairs and deduct the cost of them from the rent under A.R.S. § 33-1363; or be excused under A.R.S. § 33-1364 from paying daily rent while securing substitute housing due to lack of essential services; or pay a reduced rent due to a casualty damage, as permitted under A.R.S. § 33-1366. . . most times the justice court will cut your arguments off at the pass. Sometimes a justice of the peace (JP) will allow a tenant to present an argument, knowing he does not know how to present evidence on the record, and then rule against the tenant anyway.
If you are attempting to legally withhold rent, be sure you are entitled to do so, and have followed the proper steps. In the Tenants Library section of the ATA website, we have an article entitled, Stop the Rent Cycle - I Want to Disembark. Read it.
Presuming you have prepared a solid basis for not paying the full rent, should the landlord challenge your actions in court, NEVER admit you did not pay the rent. Instead, assert you have and, for example, then elaborate by explaining the full amount due was tendered. Otherwise, the JP will stop you right then and there, rule to evict you, and usually you will find yourself locked out by a court constable (sometimes a sheriff’s deputy) after five calendar days - this is the execution of what is called a Writ of Restitution.
But if you assert the rent due was paid, the JP may hear the case right away, so you had better be prepared to proceed. Alternatively, the JP will set the case for a hearing, perhaps several days or a week later. If that happens, you have to AGAIN bring with you every witness, every shred of evidence. Unless you have built a strong case with both testimony and evidence made part of the record, an appeal will be throwing good money after bad. That is why we highly recommend securing attorney representation – first, to evaluate whether your underlying case has sufficient merit to warrant defending it, and second, to make sure you have created a good trial record that will hold up on appeal.
If you are unable to retain legal representation, and are defending the case yourself , it is called pro per, which is short for propria persona. So have your case and legal factors clearly understood and at your fingertips ready for submission. At trial the plaintiff (in an eviction case, the landlord) presents his position first, saying why you allegedly owe the amount of rent he claims.
Then the JP will give you the opportunity, and you can prove what notices were delivered to the landlord, evidencing establishing proof that your notices were delivered, the basis for why you paid a reduced rent (e.g. contractor receipts for a self-help repair, or hotel receipts document the amount of your hotel bill that entitles you to deduction of daily rent plus 25%), and evidence the remaining rent due was actually paid. You will need to have at least four copies of every piece of evidence to be placed on the record - that is, a copy for the court record, a copy for the judge to peruse, a copy of the opposing side, and a copy on hand for your reference. You may also need original records available, to prove the copies are valid.
Never believe your friends or anyone else who assures you that you should be able to prevail. All you can do is improve the odds by having cogent legal and factual arguments.
To that end, Arizona Tenants Advocates (ATA) can assist you in preparing your initial custom notices to the landlord. Alternatively, at the very least ATA members should use our free notice forms, available for a range of purposes. That way, you will get the verbiage right, with proper legal citations, and be able to prove delivery of the notices. If you are not an ATA member, the forms can be individually purchased for a very low price.
Finally, in this Blog you may with to peruse earlier articles regarding court matters, entitled Signing Your Life Away; Small Claims: for Small Minds with Slim Pickin’s; and The Arrogance of Confidence.
-Ken Volk -
June 5, 2015