You may find yourself dealing with a problem or grievance that that just doesn’t warrant hiring a lawyer to represent you in a full-blown lawsuit with a jury trial. This is when you will find yourself in Magistrate Court, which is our small claims court.
Listen to this clip from Episode 11 of Your Day In Court podcast. Atlanta lawyers Bruce Hagen and Ray Giudice explain everything you need to know about Georgia’s magistrate courts, how to file a civil claim, what to bring in for evidence and how to best prepare for your day in court.
What is Magistrate Court?
Magistrate court or small claims court is often known as the “People’s Court”. It is intended to be a way for you to attempt to get your problem resolved using the court system in a quick and unexpensive way without an attorney. “In Magistrate court you have access to a neutral third party that is a judge to hear both sides and listen to whatever evidence you have. The judge would then make a decision and if nobody appeals that decision, it becomes binding on the parties”, explained personal injury attorney Bruce Hagen.
The Magistrate Courts of Georgia do not hold jury trials and have jurisdiction over the following:
- civil claims of no more than $15,000
- minor criminal offenses
- distress warrants
- county ordinances violations
- preliminary hearings
- arrests and warrants
How Do I File a Claim in Magistrate Court?
The first step is to determine in which county you need to file your lawsuit. You will also need to confirm the Defendant’s name and address. The person or business you are suing is the Defendant.
- If you are suing an individual, you must file the lawsuit in the county in which that person resides.
- If you are suing a business, you must file in the county where the business is incorporated. You can find out if the business is incorporated and has a registered agent by doing a search at the Georgia Corporations Division. If the business is not incorporated, you must sue the owner in the county in which he or she resides.
Next, visit the website for the magistrate court of the county you will file your lawsuit in. Most counties will have downloadable forms, filling fees, contact information for the local marshal or sheriff and step by step instructions on how to file the lawsuit. If you have additional questions or need clarification, call the Magistrate Court Clerk’s Office.
Once you have completed your research, you can follow these steps:
- Fill out the forms required by the county in which you need to file the lawsuit. In most counties, you will need to fill out a form called complaint and a form called summons. The complaint is a written statement of why the Defendant owes you money.
- Take your complaint, summons and filling fees to the Magistrate Court Clerk’s Office.
- The clerk will give you a stamped copy of your lawsuit that you must take to the local marshal or sheriff’s office. They will serve the Defendant with your lawsuit. The marshal or sheriff’s office will require a fee to serve the lawsuit.
After the Defendant has been served with the lawsuit, he/she will have 30 days to respond to the lawsuit by filling a document called an Answer. If the Defendant files an Answer, the court will notify you of your court date. If the Defendant does not file an Answer, you may get a default judgement against the Defendant.
Who Will Hear my Case in Magistrate Court?
Small claims courts are presided over by magistrates and chief magistrates. “Magistrates are magistrate judges who are assigned to both things like issues of warrants, preliminary hearings in criminal cases and general civil magistrates will sit on what we call small claims courts, a jurisdiction up to $15,000 in grievances between the parties”, explained criminal law attorney Ray Giudice in Episode 11 of Your Day In Court podcast.
Do I Need a Lawyer to go to Magistrate Court?
You don’t need a lawyer in magistrate court; however, you can seek help from a lawyer, and you can also choose to hire a lawyer to represent you. Filing and handling legal matters can be intimidating so getting legal advice from an attorney that understands the specifics of your problem is always a good idea. A car accident attorney will be better equipped to advise you about your personal injury claim than a real estate lawyer.
Sometimes magistrate judges will hear cases presented by an attorney first so having representation may save you time and keep you from sitting through a long court session waiting for your case to be called.
How to Prepare for Your Trial in Magistrate Court
Take time before your day in court to prepare for your trial. Gather all your evidence, this may include receipts, photographs, videos, letters, emails, etc. Make two copies of your evidence, one to present to the judge and one to give to the Defendant. Criminal law attorney, Ray Giudice advises, “Bring your evidence, you had an agreement, was it in emails? Was it in a contract? How about some photographs? Don’t get to court and stand in front of the judge and say, “I left that at home judge”. This is your court date; this is your day in court so be prepared.”
Remember that some rules of evidence still apply in magistrate court. You need to be able to prove your claim. In Episode 11 of Your Day In Court podcast, personal injury attorney Bruce Hagen illustrated a common scenario in magistrate court:
“Here is one that comes up frequently, one person says ‘this other guy damaged my car, for whatever reason there is no insurance involved so he damaged my car, he should pay me for damage to my car and I got an estimate to what it is going to cost to fix the car.’ The court is not going to rely on that estimate because whoever prepared it is not there to be cross-examined and there is no way to know whether its accurate or can’t challenge the accuracy of this estimate, that’s hearsay. It would be better to say in court, ‘this person there damaged my car and I paid $1,200 to have it fixed, here is the work that was done in that repair, here are the photographs, here is my credit card receipt showing that I paid for it.’ That is evidence because it’s not questionable hearsay. I can prove this is an action that actually happened. I as the car owner will say, all of this damage was caused by what that other driver did and I still have to say that I’m not paying for repairs to damage that I did when I backed into a parking meter. That’s the difference between saying this is the estimate and this is the reality of what I actually paid for.”
Your Day in Court: What to Expect
Many times, before the case is even heard, the judge will encourage you to go out in the hallway, exchange information and will want you to talk about the problem that caused the lawsuit and see if you can reach an agreement between the two of you. Some of the busier courts they will have mediators available to help the parties agree on a settlement.
If your case doesn’t settle you will wait in the courtroom until the judge calls your case. The judge will look at your evidence, he may ask you and the Defendant some questions and listen to the testimony of any witnesses. Be concise, be respectful, and be prepared. The judge will then make a decision and issue a ruling.
Listen to the entire Episode 11 of Your Day In Court podcast for more information on magistrate court and traffic court, available in every major podcast platform.
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