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Ask the Attorney: What's Up With Magisterial District Courts?

Q: I have been sued, and now I have to go to the local magistrate for a hearing. What do I need to know ahead of time?

In Pennsylvania, magisterial district judges preside over the lowest level of state courts available to civil and criminal litigants.

Along with the Pennsylvania Courts of Common Pleas, magisterial district courts offer potential plaintiffs a venue to file a complaint and thereby kick off a lawsuit.

For a civil suit to fall within the jurisdiction of a particular magisterial district court, it must fit in one of several categories. If the matter arises from a contract, or from a tort, such as a personal injury, the total damages claimed cannot exceed $8,000.

Additionally, if the matter falls under Pennsylvania landlord and tenant law, or if it involves a claim brought by a government agency to collect certain fines and penalties, then it can be brought to a magisterial district court.

Litigants who wish to claim more than $8,000 in damages must file their complaints with the Court of Common Pleas to claim the full amount of their damages. Alternatively, a litigant can opt to waive, or give up, any damages in excess of $8,000 if they would prefer to present the matter to a magisterial district judge.

Compared to the courts of common pleas, Pennsylvania’s magisterial district courts employ simplified and more informal procedures. Plaintiffs can file complaints merely by filling out a simple form and paying a filing fee, rather than drafting an original complaint following the more complicated requirements of the courts of common pleas.

Defendants do not need to file a written answer to complaints. Rather, defendants need only inform the magistrate that they intend to defend against the claim and appear at the scheduled hearing. After a magisterial district justice issues a judgment in a given matter, either party has a right to appeal the case to the local court of common pleas within 30 days.

For landlord and tenant matters, parties only have 10 days to file an appeal. Appeals from magisterial district court judgments are subject to what is known as a 'de novo' standard of review, which means that the court of common pleas that hears the appeal cancels out the entire lower court proceeding, takes a fresh look at each party’s evidence and claims, and then issues its own brand new ruling.

In an appeal from a magisterial district court judgment, the plaintiff must file a new complaint with the court of common pleas. If the defendant appealed, then the Plaintiff is given twenty days to file a new complaint.

(This article is intended as a discussion of legal topics that are often confusing to many lay people; it is not, and should not be relied on, as legal advice. Attorney Jesse White is licensed to practice solely in Pennsylvania and any information discussed relates solely to Pennsylvania law. If you have a question for the attorney, contact The Law Office of Jesse White in Cecil at 724-743-4444 or visit www.jessewhitelaw.com.)

Bob Zanakis October 26, 2012 at 08:12 PM
What is probably the most unknown factor on these (de novo=being made new) is that the public's perception that a person who fails to appear and loses the case with a default judgement cannot be appealed (thinking double jeapordy but that is for criminal trials and not civil) but the de novo means they can. So if you don't show up for court, a judgement will be entered against you. Still you can just apeal it to the court of common pleas (but I would not suggest it as it would entail legal fees and costs). Try to get it settled at the magistrates. Plus they have to file it in the district of the defendant not the person's who started the case against you.

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