District Justice vs. Common Pleas Court

When may I bring suit before a District Justice?

You may file suit with a District Justice if you have a complaint against a person or business and wish to recover an amount of money totaling less than $8000. This is called a civil lawsuit. The $8000 limit does not include the court costs involved in the suit. If you are successful, you are entitled to be reimbursed for court costs. You should be aware that, even for claims of less than $8000 you are entitled to sue in Common Pleas Court.

You may also be brought before a District Justice to answer a summary offense charge or a motor vehicle violation. These are called criminal actions.

Are there advantages to suing in District Justice Courts rather than Common Pleas Courts?

District Justice Courts are less formal, less expensive and faster than Common Pleas Courts. Also, you will need an attorney in Common Pleas Court. In District Justice Court, an attorney is not required, but it may be advisable to have one present for certain types of cases.

Where can I sue?

If you decide to sue in a District Justice Court, you must decide which District Justice has authority to handle the suit. There are rules which govern where a suit may be filed. The District Justice closest to you can advise you where to file. District Justices are listed in the yellow pages of the phone book under "District Justice" or "Justice of the Peace," their former designation.

How should I start the law suit?

Once you have found the correct office, the next step is to file a complaint on a standard form you can obtain from the District Justice. The form is reasonably easy to fill out. The important items are:

* your name and address.
* the name and address of the person or business you want to sue.
* The amount of money you are suing for, including all expenses.
* a short statement of why you believe you are entitled to the money. Be sure to provide enough information so the person you are suing knows why he or she is being sued.

Although the complaint may be filed by mail, it is advisable to submit it personally to the District Justice. One reason is that the complaint has to be officially verified (notarized), and the District Justice can do this for you. In addition, it will be easier for the clerk to tell you whether your complaint is properly completed, and if it is not, how it should be corrected. It will also be easier to determine precisely what fees you must pay. Remember, if you succeed, the party you are suing (defendant) will be required to pay you back for these costs. The costs for filing suits before a District Justice are (these prices have gone up a little bit):

* $35.50 for suit involving less than $300.
* $46.00 for suit involving less than $500.
* $56.00 for suit involving less than $4000.
* $82.00 for suit involving less than $8000.
* $66.00 for suit involving less than $2000. (landlord/tenant)
* $76.50 for suit involving less than $4000. (landlord/tenant)
* $97.00 for suit involving less than $8000. (landlord/tenant)

If the complaint is personally served by a constable there will be a fee of $17.

How is the other party notified?

Once you have filed a complaint, the clerk will schedule a hearing to be held between 12 and 60 days form the time you file. The law requires that before the hearing, the other party must receive a copy of the complaint. This can be done in one of two ways.

1. You can request the complaint be sent by certified mail. The letter will be delivered to the defendant and the receipt card will be returned to the District Justice as proof that it was received.

2. The complaint can also be delivered by the sheriff for an additional fee which can be recovered like the others if you win the suit. Sometimes having the complaint personally served is more effective because the person to whom a certified letter is addressed may not be home or may refuse to accept it. The sheriff, on the other hand, can leave the paper with an adult resident of the defendant's house, a person in charge of the store, or officer of the corporation.

What should I do before a hearing?

You should gather all documents and papers relating to the suit. It is also a good idea to line up supportive witnesses to be present at the hearing.

What happens at the hearing?

At the hearing, those present will be the District Justice, you (plaintiff), your witnesses, possibly your lawyer, the defendant, defense witnesses and possibly the defendant's lawyer.

The District Justice will explain the procedure to you. Do not be afraid to ask questions.

During the hearing, you will be given an opportunity to tell what happened. Show any papers, bills, receipts or letters you have to the District Justice. You will probably be asked questions. Then your witnesses will be allowed to tell what they know about the case. The defendant will be given the same opportunity. You will also be permitted to aske questions of the defendant.

What happens after the decision is made?

If you succeed, the other party may pay without question and is permitted to arrange to pay you in installments, as set by the District Justice. However, the decision can be appealed within 30 days to Common Pleas Court, and you can not collect your money until this time has passed.

If there is an appeal, a Notice of Intent to Appeal is filed with the prothonotary in the county courthouse. Copies of the notice will be served on both you and the District Justice who made the decision. The notice prevents you from collecting until the appeal is decided.

Remember, if the District Justice's decision is in favor of the defendant, you, likewise, have the right to appeal in the manner outlined above.

If appealed, the case will be heard from the beginning in Common Pleas Court. Since the procedure of this court is governed by more formal rules, the presence of an attorney is strongly advised.

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