What is Magistrateís Court?
Magistrateís court is Georgiaís court of small claims. Its purpose is to allow people to resolve relatively minor conflict such as property damage, failure to pay a debt, or properly perform a service. The person filing the claim is referred to as a plaintiff; the party responding to the charge is referred to as the defendant
Magistrate court jurisdiction encompasses civil claims of $15,000 or less; distress warrants and dispossessory writs (used to eject a tenant); county ordinance violations; misdemeanor deposit account fraud (bad checks); preliminary hearings; and summons, arrest warrants and search warrants. A chief magistrate, who may be assisted by one or more magistrates, presides over each of the 159 magistrate courts in the state.
Magistrates may grant bail in cases where the setting of bail is not exclusively reserved to a judge of another court. Magistrates also administer oaths and issue subpoenas, as well as sentence up to 10 days imprisonment for contempt and/or fine up to $200.
No jury trials are held in magistrate court. If a defendant submits a written request for a jury trial, cases are removed to superior or state court.
How Do I Pursue My Claim?
Appeals from dispossessory actions must be filed within 10 days from the date of judgment and also require, in addition to the appeal costs, that any amounts of rent determined due by the Magistrate Court to be paid into the registry of the Superior Court at the time of appeal and all future rents must also be paid when due.
If a Defendant fails to show at trial and a default judgment is issued, there is no appeal from a default judgment.
What Happens at the Hearing?
You will receive notice of your hearing by mail. If after receiving your hearing notice you discover that you have a conflict, you should immediately request a continuance in writing to the Court and state the reason it is needed. DO NOT wait until near or on the trial date to ask for a continuance where there are no legal grounds. One continuance may be granted at the Judge's discretion. A second continuance will be much harder to obtain.
On the date of the hearing, please report to the Magistrate Court (civil division) before time for the hearing with all of your evidence and witnesses. Do not be late. If the Plaintiff does not appear at the appropriate time, the case may be dismissed. If the Defendant fails to appear at the hearing time, a default judgment may be entered.
At the time of the hearing, a clerk will take both parties and any witnesses to the hearing room. The parties will have ten minutes to discuss the case to see if the case can be settled without a hearing. The Court is required by Georgia Law to require the parties to attempt to reach settlement. The Court does not ask that anyone accept any unreasonable or unfair offer, but only that the parties try to reach an agreement.
The Judge will ask the parties if they were able to reach settlement. If they have, the case may be dismissed or a Consent Agreement may be allowed through the Court at the parties' request. If the parties have not reached an agreement, the hearing will be held.
The Judge will explain the procedure the parties will follow during the hearing. All persons (parties and witnesses) that will testify at the hearing will be sworn or affirmed. If there is an attorney present, the court will give him/her the option of swearing or affirming his/her own witness(es).
The Plaintiff has the burden to prove the Defendant's liability to the Court and the amount of damages. For this reason, the Plaintiff will have the first opportunity to tell the Court their side of the case and present evidence on their behalf. After the Plaintiff has finished, the defendant is allowed to cross-examine the Plaintiff. This means asking questions of the Plaintiff concerning his or her testimony. The Defendant should not make any additional statements or comments at this time. The Plaintiff may offer any witness testimony they may have. This will be done by the Plaintiff asking questions of the Witness and the Witness will direct her or his answers to the Court. The Plaintiff should not ask leading questions. A leading question suggests an answer, and is often answered by a yes or no. This only affirms what the Plaintiff has stated in his or her question. The witness adds nothing to the case by answering leading questions on direct. The witness' testimony is more credible when s/he is testifying in response to the question. After the Plaintiff completes questioning of each witness, the Defendant may ask questions of the Witness during cross-examination. Leading questions are permitted during cross-examination. Any physical evidence presented to the Court must be shown to the opposing party before it is handed to the Judge (showing evidence to the witness before the hearing is ideal). Before the Plaintiff rests his/her case, the Judge will ask which evidence that party wishes to enter into evidence. The Judge will then ask if the opposing party has any objections. The Judge will decide which evidence will be accepted according to the law. Once an item is accepted into evidence, it becomes part of the Court's file and will not be returned. You are responsible for making copies of your documents ahead of time. Once the Plaintiff has rested his/her case, the Defendant will begin her/his case following the same procedures as the Plaintiff. After the Defendant has rested his/her case, each party will be given 5 minutes for closing arguments. This is where each side tries to convince the Court to rule in his or her favor.
The Judge may make a decision at this time, or, take the case under advisement and let the parties know of the decision through the mail. The Clerk will prepare the judgment in writing and mail you a copy according to the last address we have for you. Please do not call the Court and ask what the decision is. The Court will not provide this information over the phone. Do not ask the Judge to explain her judgment to you unless both parties are present. Never ask the Judge to change her judgment. Her decision is final. If you are unhappy with the outcome and feel you have sufficient merit for it, you may appeal.
Preparing for the Hearing.
Please do not ask to talk to the Judge. It is unlawful for a judge to discuss a case unless both Plaintiff and Defendant are present.
If you should move, it is your responsibility to inform the Court in writing of your new address. The Court is not responsible for a party who does not receive his or her hearing notice because s/he did not inform the Court of a new address. The Court may issue a default judgment against a Defendant, who does not appear at the hearing. If the Plaintiff fails to provide the Court with his/her new address, and does not appear at the hearing, the Court may dismiss the case.
The Plaintiff must prove the Defendant is indebted to the Plaintiff, and must also prove the amount of damages in detail. The Magistrate Court is required to apply "the rules of evidence." The Court will not accept estimates, letters, or statements that are considered "hearsay" for proving damages. This means that if the person who wrote the letter or statement is not at the hearing to testify, the document will not be admissible. The party introducing such evidence must have the maker of these writings in court, so that the other party can cross-examine (question) that person. Just as you may not introduce a writing without its maker in court, you cannot tell the Court what someone said who is not in court at the hearing.
In some cases, you may need to seek the advice of an attorney to determine which evidence to introduce. It is illegal for the Judge or any of the Court's employees to tell you what to introduce or how to try your case.
You should gather all of your documents (receipts, warranties, etc.) and organize them before the hearing. You will need to notify your witnesses of your Court date. The Court is not responsible for witnesses who do not show up at the hearing unless the Court subpoenaed that witness. You may ask the Court to subpoena witnesses for their appearance. To do this you must provide the Court in writing with the witness(es) names, address(es) and phone number(s). There is a six dollar ($6.00) service fee to subpoena a witness.
If you decide to hire an attorney after you file your claim, make sure the attorney files a Notice of Appearance with the Court in advance. If such a notice is not filed, the Court may refuse to allow the attorney to represent you unless the other party has no objections. If you chose to hire an attorney, please do so as soon as possible. Waiting until the last minute puts everyone at a disadvantage.
How Do I Collect on my Judgment?
Once you have a judgment or a default judgment, the next step is to collect on that judgment. After you decide the type of collection procedure that would be best for you, you must take your judgment and any filing fees to the Clerk of Court to begin collection. All costs paid by Plaintiff are added to the sum owed by Defendant if Plaintiff is awarded judgment; or will be determined in hearing by the Presiding Judge.
The following are the types of collection methods you may use:
What if I Need to Dismiss my Claim or Judgment?
Dismissals And Satisfied Judgments: If you wish to dismiss your claim/judgment, you must notify the Court in writing
The preceding discussion is only an overview. There are many exceptions and unique aspects of this area of law. As with all areas covered in this publication, contact the base Legal Office with any questions.
Legal assistance is provided on a walk-in basis from 0830-1100 Tuesday & Wednesday and 1400-1600 & 1700-1830 Thursday. The Legal Office is closed on productivity days and federal holidays. Notary and power of attorney services are available on a walk-in basis from 0900-1600 Monday through Friday.
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