Turns out that the courts here take such cases quite seriously (there is apparently no lower limit to monetary claim values), and the procedure is not too godawful if you speak Chinese and have a local friend who can accompany you to help fill in paperwork in legalese if needed. [u]The case must be filed in written Chinese, and as Hartzell correctly stated, in the district court closest to the residence of the defendant.
You’ll need the defendant’s address for the paperwork. [/u] It doesn’t hurt if you’ve sent correspondence to the defendant via postal evidentiary mail (郵局存證信 you2ju2 cun2zheng4xin4) stating the details of your case and as a final written request, with deadline, for the return of your property or reimbursement, although I don’t know how much weight such a letter carries. That has to be in Chinese, by the way. Written IOU’s (with translation if needed) and Chinese-speaking witnesses are very valuable too, so if you lend anything to anyone and want legal protection, be sure to get a written IOU. I realize a lot of people feel awkward about that, but you can use IOU’s as a reminder of where your books or CDs are, and not just as legal evidence, so I think it’s reasonable to ask for one.
Anyway, once the case is filed, you’ll be notified by mail of a court date for ‘tiao2jie3 調解’ (mediation), during which you will be asked to sit down face to face with the defendant, and a mediator will start speaking to you and trying to get you to settle out of court. Ours began speaking in Taiwanese, but we convinced him to switch to Mandarin.
My previous understanding was that if mediation failed, a court date would then be set. However, to my surprise, the mediator sent the case directly to the courtroom (thank heavens I actually brought my witness that day), and after a 40-minute wait, the judge heard our case. [u]So be aware that the mediation date might turn into a court date if the judge’s caseload permits. Bring your evidence and witnesses.
[/u]Had I known that, I would have brought evidence of the value of the book (around NT$8500, btw) with me that day. Since I didn’t, we had to go back again in a week with that evidence for the assessment of damages. I brought professional evidence (in English) of the book’s value, and the judge was willing to accept it as long as I walked him through it (easy enough, with the book title and value estimate highlighted). The defendant was unable, despite being given an extra week and an additional court date, to produce evidence of a lower value, so the judge was ready to decide in my favor (and stated so).
The lesson is that evidence and witnesses are key. Even if your evidence isn’t bulletproof, the case will be decided on what evidence there is, so bring what you have.
The strange thing is that the system here REALLY focuses on trying to get an out of court settlement, so each time we showed up in court, the bailiff took us into negotiation; and even right before the verdict, the judge pretty much twisted the defendant’s arm into settling with me for about 2/3 of what I was asking – perhaps this is part of the face-saving emphasis in the culture?
Another thing I learned is that once the fact of borrowing money or objects is established, the burden of proof is on the borrower to show that it has been returned, according to the judge during yesterday’s court session. “They’re lying, your honour – I returned it long ago” didn’t get the defendant anywhere with this judge, as the presumption is that the lender wouldn’t be suing if the property had been returned.
So if you lend anything and want legal protection, get an IOU and/or have a witness, and if you return anything and want legal protection, be sure to get a written receipt and/or have a witness documenting its return.
In our case, the judge got us to agree in his presence to a settlement of about 2/3 of what I was asking for, and I agreed because I thought the defendant was going to appeal the case and make it drag on further just to be stubborn. By settling, he committed in writing to pay within 10 days, and the judge informed me that if the defendant failed to pay I could then file to garnish his salary.
The final chapter in this saga was that the judge came out into the center of the courtroom at the end because he wanted to shake our hands. He was obviously tickled pink that he’d had foreigners in his courtroom.