Pennsylvania Magisterial District Courts and How They Work
Magisterial District Courts are the first level of Pennsylvania’s court system and are presided over by Magisterial District Judges. Magistrate courts are limited in their jurisdiction, handling minor criminal offenses including misdemeanors, infractions such as traffic and non-traffic citations, and petty offenses. Common criminal proceedings in this court are:
- All summary cases,
- Preliminary arraignments and hearings,
- Setting bail,
- Issuing warrants of arrest in misdemeanor and felony cases, and
- Issuing search warrants.
Magisterial District Courts also handle civil matters like civil wedding ceremonies and emergency Protection from Abuse petitions. The court also resolves civil disputes such as breaches of contracts, landlord-tenant issues, and torts (a wrongful act or an infringement of a right, other than those included in contracts, leading to possible liability). Civil claims in this court cannot exceed a monetary recovery of $12,000 including expenses like lawyer’s fees and filing fees.
Generally, to be heard in a magistrate court, the suing party must file a complaint in the district where the party they are bringing the action against resides or the district in which a claim arose. A complaint is a document that states the grievance against the opposing party and attempts to persuade the Magisterial District Judge that relief should be granted. The complaint does not have to be filed by an attorney, a party can file “pro se” (a Latin phrase meaning on one’s own behalf). While conducting a case without an attorney would save money, it is recommended that anyone considering bringing suit against another consult an attorney to make the process much less frustrating and stressful in an already tension-filled situation.
Some advantages to filing in magistrate court rather than filing in the Court of Common Pleas, in addition to a lawyer not being required, is that a magistrate case is generally faster and less expensive. Magistrate courts are also less formal than common pleas which can make attending a hearing less intimidating than a trial in the Court of Common Pleas. As a result, some choose to file in magistrate court even if their claim for relief could be greater than $12,000 because of these conveniences.
A hearing with a Magisterial District Judge is simple and straightforward. The procedure will be explained, and parties and their witnesses will be sworn in to testify under oath. Then, the person suing (plaintiff) will be asked questions by the Magisterial District Judge and opposing counsel’s attorney, if retained, generally focused on what caused them to sue the opposing party and what entitles them to relief. Evidence in support of testimony can include bills, receipts, photographs, videotapes, witnesses, etc. Following the plaintiff, the person being sued (defendant) is afforded the same opportunity to voice their side as well as present evidence and bring witnesses. The plaintiff or plaintiff’s counsel has the opportunity to ask questions just like defendant’s counsel could of the plaintiff.
A decision will be reached and administered either in the hearing or within five days of it. If a party is not satisfied with the decision, they have the opportunity to appeal. An appeal from the magistrate is a de novo review, which means the case is not bound by the decision of the magistrate and the case essentially starts anew in the Court of Common Pleas. A party dissatisfied with the decision has thirty days to file an appeal.
This article was written by writer and legal intern, Jennifer Lapinski.
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