Going to Magistrate Court: How to file your own civil case
Last updated on 08/28/2023 at 7:30 pm
What types of civil cases can be filed in Magistrate Court?
You can file civil cases where the financial amount in dispute is not more than $10,000.
Here are some examples of cases that might be filed in Magistrate Court: a landlord who doesn’t properly return a security deposit; a neighbor who broke your window and won’t fix it; or a problem with a store that sold you a bad product and won’t replace it.
Magistrate Court also handles evictions and emergency protective orders.
How do I file a complaint?
Go to the Magistrate Clerk’s office in the county where your problem is located and ask for a Civil Complaint. You can also find the Civil Complaint online.
Fill in your name and address. Then fill in the defendant’s name and address. A copy of the papers will be served upon the other side. You will need the exact name and physical address (not a P.O. Box) where the papers can be delivered!
Write a brief statement of why you think the defendant owes you money. Use short sentences, no fancy legal words are necessary. Write what you want the Court to do. Normally this is the amount of money you want the other side to pay.
If you cannot afford the court filing fee, ask the Magistrate Clerk for a “Fee Waiver Form.” You can also find the Fee Waiver Form online. You will need to fill this out with information about your income, bills, debts/expenses, and property. You will need to attach a pay stub, proof of Social Security or DHHR benefits (including food stamps), or another financial document that verifies your income. The Clerk will review your information and tell you if you have to pay the fee. Read this article to learn more about asking for a Fee Waiver.
What happens after I file the complaint?
The Sheriff’s Office will deliver your Complaint to the defendant. This may take a couple of days or a couple of weeks.
Once the defendant receives the papers the law allows him time to file a response, called an Answer. Depending on the type of case, this can be as long as 20-30 days from the time the defendant receives the papers.
After the defendant files his Answer, the Magistrate Court will schedule a date and time for a trial and send written notification to each side. Remember, if your address changes during the court case you need to tell the Clerk in writing so that you receive all notifications from the court.
If you do not get a notice of the hearing date within six weeks after you file your case, check back with the Magistrate Clerk’s office to see if the papers were delivered to the defendant.
If the papers were delivered, but the defendant has not filed an Answer within time, you can ask the Magistrate Clerk for a form to request a “default judgment” in your favor. The form can be found online. The instructions for the form are here.This is an Order that you win because the other side failed to respond to your Complaint.
What do I need to prove in court?
There are two things you must prove in Court:
1. The defendant did something wrong:
- You have to prove the defendant did something wrong, like breach a contract or damage your property.
- It is up to you to prove what the defendant did and why it was wrong.
- It is not enough to just say something is true – you must show the Court EVIDENCE to prove it.
2. The damage you suffered because of what the defendant did:
- You must prove the money value of the damage done. It is not enough to say it is broken or you lost money.
- If someone damages an item of property, you have to prove what it was worth on the day before it was damaged, and then what it was worth on the day after it was damaged.
- You have to present evidence to prove exactly what the property was worth, or exactly how much money was lost on the deal. Bring receipts to show what you spent; or estimates to show how much repairs will cost; or some other evidence or testimony to convince the Court.
How much can I sue for?
The court can only give you the “fair market value” of the item on the day before it was damaged.
- This isn’t the price if the item was new. It’s been used. It isn’t worth as much now.
- This also isn’t the price of buying a new one. Your old one was used, and wasn’t worth as much as a new one.
- Receipts proving what you paid are useful evidence. A receipt can help the court figure out how much less it’s worth now.
For example, suppose you paid $100 for a new coffee table. A year later a water leak in your apartment damages it. You can ask the court for the value of your used coffee table. Not the value of the new coffee table.
Think about what you could have sold it for at a yard sale, through the ad bulletin, or online.
How do I prove things to the court?
To win, you need EVIDENCE to prove that what you are saying is, in fact, true.
PICTURES ARE POWERFUL! “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Use pictures that show the details. You should look for pictures you already have for the proof you need. For example, a picture from a birthday party that shows the hole in the wall. Pictures help reduce a lot of uncertainty. You may believe something is “ruined,” while the other side says it is “only scratched.” A clear picture lets the Court see the real condition.
Take the best pictures you intend to use as evidence to a copy shop with an ordinary Xerox machine and have the best ones enlarged. It will cost about $1 for each 8×11 full page print, but it is worth it. Any photos that are stored on your phone need to be printed out. They will be easier to see and many Courts do not allow phones in the courtroom. If you cannot get them printed, take your phone and ask if you can show the photos from there. Be sure to put your phone on silent.
Videos can also be wonderful, but you have to call the Court ahead of time to make sure they will have the right equipment available.
In most cases there are other types of evidence that can also be used:
- Leases, contracts, and written agreements;
- Receipts for what you spent;
- Checking account records or cancelled checks to show when the check was cashed;
- Estimates for repairs;
- Letters, text messages, emails, and any other communication between you and the other side. Take your phone and hard copies if possible.
Keep your records organized and use only the ones that are really important. Figure out which ones are clear and helpful and use only those. The Court does not want to watch you shuffle through a big pile of papers hunting for something.
If you have relevant witnesses, bring them to the hearing. If a witness needs a subpoena, go to the Magistrate Clerk’s office at least 10 days before the hearing and request a subpoena.
You CANNOT use letters or written statements from witnesses to prove what happened. The other side has to have the opportunity to question the witness and a written statement cannot be questioned. All your witnesses MUST BE PRESENT TO TESTIFY AT THE HEARING.
What do I do in court?
Wait your turn to discuss your side of the story. You should not interrupt the Magistrate or the other side. When it is your turn to talk, you should explain your situation to the Magistrate. This is your chance to tell your story, so be complete.
You can write out what you want to say before you go to court. If you run out of time, you can ask to give your written statement to the Magistrate.
You should use pictures, video, letters, and witnesses to prove your side of the story.
If you have pictures, videos, texts, or emails on your cell phone, bring the phone and hard copies to the court.
A few tips:
- Be on time!
- Dress nicely, you are going to court.
- Never let your phone interrupt the hearing. Turn it off or put it on silent.
When will a decision be made?
Sometimes the Magistrate will make a decision right there at the hearing. Other times, the Magistrate may take some time before mailing out a decision in writing.
If you disagree with the Magistrate’s decision, you can appeal to Circuit Court. Deadlines to appeal can be very short. Act quickly! Petition for Appeals forms can be found here.