BASIC INSTRUCTIONS FOR FILING LEGAL MATTERS IN MAGISTRATE COURT
Handling legal matters in any court can be technical, complicated, and intimidating. Getting legal advice is smart, but needs to come from a lawyer who knows the specifics of the problem you want to resolve.
There are forms for almost all Magistrate Court matters that’ll help guide you through the information required. A clerk of court can help you fill out the forms, but they’re not lawyers and can’t give you legal advice. That bears repeating: Clerks of Court are not lawyers and can’t give you legal advice. Suing someone in Magistrate Court is a “small claim.”
1. The Magistrate Court can only give you a judgment for money that is owed you—it can’t order someone to do or not do something.
2. The amount of money involved must be $15,000.00 or less.
3. When you file a claim, the person you sue may file a counterclaim against you. If they do, you can’t dismiss and walk away without their agreement.
4. On the form for a small claim is an area for a short, simple statement of why you are suing, and what you want from the court. It does not need to include all the details, just specific enough information for the person being sued to understand why they’re being sued.
5. Magistrate Court filings should NOT include certain personal identifying information.
a. For account numbers and Social Security Numbers, uses x’s except for the last four digits, i.e. xxxx-xxxx-xxxx-1234.
b. For birthdates, use x’s except for the year of birth, i.e. xx/xx/1952. If you don’t follow this rule, you can be ORDERED to fix it—if you are ordered to fix it and don’t, you can be held in contempt.
6. Some situations require personal information, like a garnishment. You must make sure that the complete information ONLY appears on the Defendant and the Garnishee’s copies, NOT on the original forms filed with the clerk.
7. Nearly everything filed in Magistrate Court needs to “served” on the Defendant. The Marshall or Sheriff’s Office will attempt to serve your filing for a reasonable fee—so the name and address must be correct. (No PO boxes.) They will try several times to serve the papers, but don’t guarantee success. Proper service is required for a valid action and achieving proper service is up to you. If the Marshall or Sheriff doesn’t succeed, it’s up to you to hire a process server to achieve service. No service means no lawsuit.
8. The party being sued needs to be sued in the county where they live. Businesses have a person designated as the “agent for service.” You can sue a business in the county where the “agent for service” lives, or where they are in business. It’s up to you to know the correct legal name of the business. There are exceptions to these rules and it’s up to you to know if they apply to your situation.
9. The person or business being sued has 30 days, in most cases, from the date of service to file an answer or a counterclaim (some cases, like dispossessories, have only seven days). After their response, you will receive a court date. The service forms show the number of days a person has to file an answer—read the form carefully to know the answer period for your type of case.
10. Bring to court on the court date all your witnesses, pictures, papers, or anything else that proves you are right about the reason for your suit. You MUST bring proof that the amount of money you seek is justified and correct.
11. Defendants should bring to Court all the witnesses, pictures, papers, or anything else that proves they are right and that the Plaintiff is NOT entitled to what is being asked for.
12. If you have a legal reason to ask for a different court date, you must ask in advance, in writing: your request must also be sent to the other party.
13. You must certify that EVERYTHING you file with the court after the initial filing has been copied and sent to the other party.
14. If no answer is filed 45 days after service of the initial complaint (less in certain types of cases) you may be entitled to a default judgment. Some cases need to go to court anyway for you to prove the amount of money you’re seeking; some do not. All default judgments require a military affidavit. If your case has a default, Google what a “Military Affidavit” is and how to get one.
15. You are encouraged, and in some cases required, to talk to the other party and attempt to resolve the problem. Finding a resolution is always better than risking why lies ahead in court. Settlement Agreements should be in writing, signed by both parties, and filed with the court.
16. Courts are “self-help” places: it’s up to you to learn the rules of the court and to know what you need to prove to win your case. No instruction sheet can give you all of that, which is why getting a law degree takes three years. If you’re in doubt, have questions, or need assistance, consult a lawyer.
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