What is Magistrate Court?
The 1983 Constitution of the State of Georgia provided for a uniform magistrate court system throughout the State to replace what was formally known as justice of the peace courts and small claims courts. These newly formed Magistrate Courts were created to be more informal in nature than the higher courts and to allow ordinary citizens to represent themselves without the help of an attorney. Since these Magistrate Courts provided so much greater access to our legal system, they became commonly referred to as the “People’s Court.” Most judges who serve in Magistrate Courts do not hold a law degree.
Both individuals and businesses can be sued in the Magistrate Court. In 1999, due to the success and efficiency of this court, the limit for monetary damages that can be filed was increased from $5,000.00 to $15,000.00. This change reflected the needs of our population and allowed many more people to file their actions in Magistrate Court, rather than appearing with an attorney in State or Superior Court.
What Kinds of Cases are Brought Before Magistrate Court?
The Magistrate Court is authorized to hear a variety of civil cases, as long as the claim does not exceed the $15,000.00 limit, including suits on accounts or contracts where a debtor has failed to pay a debt, damages or personal injury claims involving accidents or wrongful conduct, failure to perform on written contracts, personal property foreclosures, garnishments, levies on property to satisfy a judgment and abandoned motor vehicle. Landlord-tenant cases, referred to as dispossessory actions and in some cases distress warrants, are filed against individuals or corporations who remain on a property without the right to do so. These landlord-tenant actions are usually filed for non-payment of rent. Dispossessory actions represent an exception in Magistrate Court where the jurisdictional limit of $15,000.00 does not apply.
Magistrate Courts also have the authority to issue criminal arrest warrants for both felony and misdemeanor offenses; and upon the sworn testimony of a law enforcement officer, are authorized to issue search warrants. They are empowered to issue good behavior warrants to insure that a person’s conduct will not cause another individual emotional or physical harm. This court also serves to hold First Appearance Hearings, Preliminary Hearings and Waivers of Extradition Hearings which are conducted after an arrest. The Magistrate Court also has the jurisdiction to hold trials for defendants charged with violating county ordinances and certain misdemeanor offenses, such as deposit account fraud, shoplifting, possession of marijuana, trespassing and alcohol offenses by persons under 21.
What Kinds of Cases are not Allowed in Magistrate Court?
Magistrate courts cannot try individuals charged with a felony or with certain misdemeanor offenses. The Magistrate Court does not have jurisdiction over restraining orders, divorce cases; child custody, child visitation and support cases; cases involving real estate, mental incompetence commitments and equity actions, which involve the rights of parties and seek to direct a person to perform a certain act or to refrain from doing an act.
As with the other courts, the Statute of Limitations applies to cases filed in Magistrate Court. In civil cases, the statute of limitations on open accounts, property damage and oral contracts is 4 years; for simple contracts the statute is 6 years, for a contract under seal it is 20 years, for personal injury suits, 2 years, and for misdemeanors it is also two years. Felony cases differ from 4 years to no limitation depending on the crime.
Other Considerations Before Bringing a Case to Magistrate Court
Before filing a criminal or civil case in Magistrate Court, it is wise to consider whether you have sufficient evidence to win your case. If you don’t have witnesses to testify on your behalf or if you lack physical evidence to support your claim, it may be difficult for you to win. Be prepared to bring all documents and evidence as well as anyone who can testify on your behalf to the court. A subpoena can be obtained to legally require your witnesses to appear in court.
It is also worth considering whether a countersuit or counterclaim will be filed against you. A counterclaim is filed by the person being sued stating that you are in fact indebted to him or her, and that your claim should not be allowed.
Finally, you should always consider whether filing a suit offers you the best option for resolving the dispute. It is often better for the parties to reach an agreement out-of-court when the issues are clear and both the plaintiff and defendant can agree upon a reasonable solution. Oftentimes, the process of mediation offers the best avenue for resolution. Parties meet with a qualified mediator who listens to both parties and suggests alternatives to lawsuits. Mediation often results in a solution that is better for all parties involved.
If a civil case is ultimately filed in Magistrate Court, there are a number of ways it can be resolved. For instance, when a defendant agrees to a claim and consents to pay the damages, it is called a Consent Judgment. If a defendant fails to file an answer to a claim within thirty days after being served and does not reopen the case within another 15 days, or if the defendant does not show up for trial, he or she will automatically lose the case by Default Judgment. However, the plaintiff is not automatically entitled to the amount claimed. The court may hold a hearing, called a liquidated damages hearing, to determine the amount of damages. At the hearing, you will be allowed to present evidence as to the amount of money to which you believe you are entitled. If there is no Consent or Default Judgment, the case goes forward and it is placed on the trial calendar for the judge to determine its outcome. The judgment may be for the plaintiff, for the defendant, or for both parties and may not necessarily award for the amount sued. Also keep in mind that if at any time the defendant or plaintiff files for bankruptcy, the case must be stayed pending the outcome of the bankruptcy hearing.
Should I be Represented by a Lawyer?
Persons appearing in court without a lawyer are called pro se litigants. In an effort to make the Magistrate Court user-friendly, hearings are usually conducted in an informal manner and the judge may intervene to ensure that the merits of the case are fairly presented. So if you feel comfortable speaking in front of people and are able to communicate your ideas well, you may decide that it’s in your best interests to represent yourself.
There are, however, many good reasons to seek legal counsel. If you don’t feel comfortable with the idea of presenting your own case, it may be best to consider hiring an attorney. Or perhaps you may decide that there is simply too much at stake to handle the case by yourself. Or the legal issues surrounding your case may be too complex for you to understand or too difficult for you to handle on your own. An attorney can advise you about the strengths and weaknesses of your case, handle the legal requirements and provide you with a large measure of comfort. There may also be times when there is simply no reason to represent yourself. For instance, if your case involves an insurance claim, you may be entitled to legal representation provided by your insurance company.
Communicating with the Court
To make your relations with court personnel go as smoothly as possible, it’s helpful to understand their responsibilities. The clerk will be happy to provide you with the forms used to file or answer a claim. However, by law the clerk of court is not allowed to help develop your case, advise you of what defense or evidence to use, or to offer you any opinions about the strengths or weaknesses of your case. You are not allowed to talk to the judge about your case outside of court and the clerk cannot allow a continuance of your case without the approval of the judge. If you find that you have a serious conflict with a court date, immediately contact the opposing side to discuss the matter; but keep in mind that only the judge can cancel or reschedule a court date.
Filing a Claim in Magistrate Court
Before filing a claim in Magistrate Court, you’ll want to consider whether or not the defendant will have the economic resources to collect should you be awarded a judgment. Before proceeding with your case, many courts recommend that you send the defendant a written demand with a deadline by certified mail in an effort to informally resolve your claim before filing legal action. If you are unsuccessful, you can proceed by filing a claim in the county where the defendant lives. It’s essential to be sure that you are suing the proper entity for your claim to be valid. For instance, if you are suing two or more people on a single claim resulting from the same transaction, you must name each defendant and have each one served with a copy of the claim and summons. When suing a married couple, you must serve both the husband and wife. If the defendants live in different counties, you usually file in the county where any one of the defendants lives and then serve the other defendants in their counties of residence. And when suing a business you must know if it is incorporated. You can find out this information by calling the Georgia Secretary of State’s office at (404) 656-2817 or checking its web site at www.sos.state.ga.us To sue a partnership you can either sue the individual members of that partnership separately or you can sue in the name of the business partnership and serve each partner. To sue a proprietorship you would sue and serve the owner of the business doing business as the name of the business. The costs of filing are available from the clerk of court.
Answering a Claim in Magistrate Court
A defendant has 30 days after service to answer a claim in Magistrate Court. He or she may deny the claim and request a hearing or consent to the claim and set up payments. When a defendant answers a claim, he must present his defense to the claim to the clerk of court. The answer is usually filed in writing and most courts have forms used for answering claims. However, the answer may also be presented orally to the clerk of court in person. Oftentimes, when filing an answer, the defendant also files a counterclaim against the plaintiff. This would include a detailed explanation for the damages sought.
The law recognizes a number of different defenses. The defendant may claim to have already paid damages, or that the statute of limitations has run out on the account, or that the defendant has filed for bankruptcy, in which case he would have to supply the court with the bankruptcy case number. The defendant may also claim not to have provided the plaintiff with the service or product for which the charges were made. Or that the plaintiff did not fulfill his obligation by providing the service or product for which he is suing. Or the defendant may have been a minor at the time of creating the obligation. If you are unsure about possible legal defenses, it is wise to consult with a lawyer.
What are the Rules in Magistrate Court? Basic Rules for Civil Suits:
As with all the other courts, the party who files an action is responsible for proving her case in Magistrate Court. This plaintiff is required to prove the case by a legal standard called, “a preponderance of the evidence.” This means that the evidence in favor of the plaintiff must be greater than 50%–that is, the scales of justice must tip slightly in favor of the plaintiff. In proving her case, the plaintiff is allowed to present evidence using both witnesses and exhibits.
For evidence to be admissible in court, someone has to testify about that evidence. Not only that, but the testifying witness must also have personal knowledge about the facts or statements that he is making in court. This means that your witness either had to watch an event while it was happening or to have been a party to a conversation. Someone who merely hears someone else talk about an event or conversation is not allowed to testify about it in court. Such evidence is considered hearsay and is inadmissible.
Whether you are a plaintiff or defendant, the rules of evidence require that all the evidence presented is relevant to the case. The court is not interested in past history, personal facts or issues that have no bearing on your present trial. Admissible evidence is considered to be any witnesses, documents or physical objects, such as a videotape, that help to prove the facts of your case. Hearsay, which is inadmissible evidence, is a statement or document that was made out-of-court and which is being offered in court without the person who made the statement or document present. If you need to have affidavits, letters, estimates or repair bills presented as evidence, you must have the person who made the statement or document testify about it in court or show that the hearsay is admissible under an exception.
Both sides of any case should be clear and organized in the presentation of evidence. The key to your success in court lies in thorough preparation. You should plan the order in which you will call your witnesses and present your evidence. It is very helpful to have a checklist on hand of all the witnesses and documents that you will be presenting to support your case. Documents should be organized in a clear manner and should be limited to what is necessary in proving your side of the case. If possible, an original document should be used, however if it is unavailable, a clear and legible copy will suffice. You may also want to prepare a list of key questions for each witness. And always try to keep the big picture in mind. Be aware of what you want to accomplish with each witness and each new piece of evidence that you introduce. Try to avoid redundant testimony and evidence whenever possible.
All of your witnesses must be present at the time of your trial. The only sure way to guarantee a witness’s presence is by subpoena. This is why it is so common for witnesses who are unwilling or unable to appear in court without assistance to be issued subpoenas.
A subpoena is an order from the court to be present at trial in order to offer testimony, and they are served through the local sheriff’s department. Failure to appear may result in the judge issuing a bench warrant for the subpoenoed person’s arrest and contempt charges may be brought against such an individual by the court.
To obtain a subpoena, the court requires that you pay a small fee, which you may be able to collect at the time of judgment. And be aware that the judge will not grant a postponement for failure of a witness to appear or to allow litigants to gather evidence.
Court Procedures in Magistrate Court
Before your trial begins, Magistrate Courts will require that you talk with the other side to see if your dispute can be settled. The law requires that you at least make a reasonable effort to resolve the dispute before trial. Remember that once this opportunity has passed, the ultimate resolution of the matter will lie with the court.
The judge may make a few opening remarks about trial procedures and then call for opening statements. An opening statement is a brief outline of your case and what you intend to prove. Both sides have the opportunity to make an opening statement, if so desired. Use your opening statement to present a short and simple overview of your case. Don’t get too detailed about what your witnesses will say or about the documents that you’ll introduce. Since the plaintiff has the burden of proving her case, she gets to go first. Remember, in Magistrate Court it is the plaintiff’s burden to prove her case by a preponderance of the evidence, so she must prove that slightly more than 50% of the evidence supports her case. The defendant does not have a burden of proof, unless he or she has also brought a counterclaim. When speaking in court, always address the judge, not the opposing party. And do your part to help maintain the dignity of the court. It is both unwise and unnecessary for opposing parties to argue amongst themselves.
After opening statements, you’ll have the opportunity to testify and call witnesses. The plaintiff gets the first opportunity to testify as her own witness and to ask questions of any other witnesses she
may have. Keep in mind that you are only allowed to ask witnesses questions and that you must do so respectfully; you cannot argue with them or offer testimony on your own behalf. After the plaintiff finishes questioning each of her witnesses, the defense is given the opportunity to cross-examine each of those witnesses. This means that the defense can ask the witness follow-up questions that relate to the other side’s case.
Once a plaintiff has presented all of her witnesses and exhibits, the defendant is given the same opportunity to present all of the witnesses and exhibits that help to make his case. When all witnesses have been called and both sides have rested, the time has come to make closing arguments. Unlike opening statements, closing arguments present an opportunity to argue your case before the judge, to persuade him or her one last time to rule in your favor. To help accomplish this, it is wise to summarize the evidence that you have established and point out the evidence that you think the other side has failed to establish. Typically, but not always, the plaintiff will go first.
After closing arguments, the judge will render his decision. Once a decision has been reached the case is over and you should never argue with either the judge or the other party. If you don’t understand the decision, respectfully ask the judge to explain it.
What Happens After a Judgment?
Once a judgment is rendered, either party can appeal that decision within a 30 day period. An appeal from Magistrate Court is transferred to either Superior or State Court, where everything will begin anew, as if the first trial never happened.
If you are awarded a money judgment, it is still not a guarantee that you will actually receive your money or property. Neither the court nor the judge are authorized to collect a judgment for you — that’s your responsibility. Unfortunately, doing so can be a difficult and involved process and you will not always be successful. The losing party may declare bankruptcy, find ways to avoid payment of the judgment altogether, or simply not have the means to pay the judgment.
To collect on a judgment you may want to obtain a garnishment which seeks payment directly from the other side’s assets, property or wages. Another method used for collection is to obtain what is called a Fi Fa. This is a judicial writ that directs a sheriff to satisfy a judgment from the debtor’s property. It permits a levy on real property and the seizure and sale of goods. A lien may also be taken on a specific item of the person’s property. And through the process of a levy, the sheriff can also seize the defendant’s property and put it up for sale to help pay the judgment.
If a defendant fails to file an answer to a claim within thirty days after being served and does not reopen the case within another 15 days, or if the defendant does not show up for trial, he or she will automatically lose the case by Default Judgment. However, the plaintiff is not automatically entitled to the amount claimed. The court may hold a hearing, called a liquidated damages hearing, to determine the amount to which you are entitled. At the hearing, you will be allowed to present evidence as to the
amount of money to which you believe you are entitled. The judgment may be for the plaintiff, for the defendant, or for both parties and may not necessarily award for the amount sued. Also keep in mind that if at any time the defendant or plaintiff files for bankruptcy, the case must be stayed pending the outcome of the bankruptcy hearing.