How to Take a Civil (Non-Criminal) Lawsuit to General District Court (Part 2 of 3)
- Planning for and Proving Your Lawsuit -
What usually happens at the first court hearing?
At the first court hearing, the following things can happen.
• If you filed in the Small Claims Division and the other party wants an attorney, the
case will be removed to the regular General District Court. This means you will have a later trial date and time.
• If you filed in the wrong General District Court and the other party wants the case to be
heard elsewhere, the case will be transferred to the proper General District Court.
You will have a later trial date and time in another General District Court.
• If your claim involves more than $4,500 and the other party wants the case to be heard
in Circuit Court, the case will be removed to Circuit Court. You will have a later
trial date and time in Circuit Court.
• The other party could ask the Judge to order you to file a "Bill of Particulars."
• The other party could file a Counterclaim against you.
• The case could be set for a later trial date and time.
• The case could be heard and tried right then.
What is a "Bill of Particulars"?
A "Bill of Particulars" is a written statement giving details of the lawsuit. It is a more complete explanation of why you should get the money or property you are asking for. If the Judge orders you to file a Bill of Particulars, you will have a later trial date and time. You also will have a date by which to file your Bill of Particulars. If you don't file by this date, your lawsuit may be dismissed.
What is a "Counterclaim"?
A "Counterclaim" is a claim that the other party files against you. This must be in writing. It is a claim that you owe money or property to the party you have sued. If a Counterclaim is filed against you and is not a detailed explanation, you may ask the Judge to order the other party to file a Bill of Particulars. You also may ask for a later trial date and time.
Will the court appoint an attorney for me?
No. The court will not appoint an attorney for a party in a civil (non-criminal) case in General District Court.
Do I need an attorney to bring a lawsuit in General District Court?
You can file a lawsuit by yourself without an attorney. If your case is simple, you may
not need an attorney in General District Court. If your case is complicated, or if the other side has an attorney, it will help if you have an attorney.
When will my case come to trial?
This differs from court to court and from case to case. On the Warrant in Debt, or Warrant in Detinue, one of two boxes will be checked. One box says: "To dispute this claim, you must appear on the return date to try this case." If this box is checked, the case will be tried at the first court hearing.
The other box says: "To dispute this claim, you must appear on the return date for the judge to set another date for trial." If this box is checked and the other party appears at the first court hearing, the case will be tried at a later date.
How long will the trial be?
This also depends on the nature of the case, and differs from court to court and from case to case. The Judge usually wants the trial to take only as much time as needed to reach a fair decision. This can range from 15 minutes to an hour or more.
How should I prepare for trial?
When you go to court for trial, get prepared in advance. Bring papers and witnesses that support your case. These are some of the things you might want to bring.
• Contracts, leases, letters, and other important papers.
• Receipts, cancelled checks, money order receipts, and other proofs of payment.
• Photographs showing any property damage.
• Drawings and repair estimates.
• Medical records showing any personal injuries.
If a witness doesn't want to come to court, you can ask the Clerk to subpoena the witness.
A subpoena is a court order that says a witness must come to court. Ask for the "Request for Witness Subpoena." This also is called "Form DC-325." You need the full name and current physical address (not a Post Office box) for each witness. You must give this information to the Clerk at least 10 days before the trial date.
If someone has a paper but doesn't want to bring it to court, you can ask the Clerk to subpoena the papers. This is called a subpoena duces tecum. This is a court order that says a person must bring the papers to court. Ask for the "Subpoena Duces Tecum." This also is called "Form DC-336." You need the full name and current physical address (not a Post Office box) of the person who has the papers. You must give the name and address of the person who has the papers, and a description of all papers you want, to the Clerk at least 15 days before the trial date.
You must pay $12.00 for the subpoena or the subpoena duces tecum. If you don't have
enough money to pay this (or any other) fee, ask for the "Petition for Proceeding in Civil Case Without Payment of Fees or Costs." This also is called "Form CC-1414." You must be a Virginia resident to file this form. Only the Judge can grant your request to proceed without paying fees.
Can I call, write to, or talk with the Judge outside of court?
No. You may not call, write to, or talk with the Judge about your case outside of court. The decision must be based only on the evidence the Judge hears in the case. The Judge may hear this evidence only in court, after all parties have had notice and a chance for a hearing.
What happens at trial?
You must get to court on time. If you're not there on time, the case could be dismissed or a court order could be entered against you.
Remember always to be polite when talking to the Judge. Address the Judge as "Sir" or "Ma'am" or "Your Honor."Never interrupt the Judge when the Judge is speaking. If you are not sure if you can say anything, wait until the Judge has stopped talking, and ask the Judge if you may say something.
At trial, theJudge wants to hear your side of the story and the other party's side. To explain how this is done, let's assume you are the plaintiff - the person who filed the lawsuit. If you are the other party, read this explanation as if you are the defendant.
Both parties are given a chance to give a very short summary of what they are going to prove. This is called an "opening statement." The plaintiff goes first. Then the defendant gives an opening statement.
After the opening statements, you, as the plaintiff, put on evidence and tell your side of the story. Evidence is testimony by sworn witnesses, papers, and anything else that you want to show the Judge to help explain why you should get the money or property you are asking for. Asking yourself what would convince you - if you didn't know anything at all about the case -
often is a good way to help decide what evidence to offer.
When you tell your side of the story, you and your witnesses must swear or affirm to tell the truth. You also should show the Judge, and the other party, any papers that back up your story or would help the Judge decide the case, and can be admitted into evidence. Papers and records kept in the course of business usually can be admitted into evidence. However, letters, statements and affidavits from those not a party generally can't be admitted into evidence.
After you have told your side of the story, the defendant can "cross-examine" you by asking you questions about what you have just said. The Judge also may ask you questions.
You can have your witnesses testify in any order you wish. After each of your witnesses has testified, the defendant has the right to "cross-examine" that witness by asking the witness questions about what he or she has just said. The Judge also may ask your witnesses questions.
Many judges prefer that no more than three or four witnesses testify for each side, so pick your best witnesses. The best witnesses are those who have personal knowledge about why you should get the money or property you are asking for.
After you and all your witnesses have given evidence, the defendant puts on his or her evidence. The defendant and his or her witnesses tell their side of the story. The defendant also may present any papers that can be admitted into evidence which back up his or her side of thestory. You have a right to cross-examine the defendant and his or her witnesses by asking them questions about what they have just said. You shouldn't ask the other side any questions until you get the Judge's permission. The Judge also may ask questions.
After both sides have presented all their evidence, each side has the right to make a short statement summarizing the case. This is called a "closing statement." In the closing statement, you should explain to the Judge in a general way why you should win the money or property you are asking for. If the other party's evidence doesn't make any sense, this is your chance to point that out. In his or her closing statement, the other party can point out any weaknesses in your position.
After both sides have finished closing statements, the Judge will make a decision about whether you get the money or property, and if so, much how. Usually the Judge will tell you right then what that decision is.
What happens after trial?
The Judge issues a written order, called a judgment. If the Judge rules for the other party, the judgment will dismiss the case. If the Judge rules in your favor in a lawsuit for money, the judgment says how much money you are owed. If no one files an appeal within ten days, the judgment is final. The judgment lets you do certain things to force the other party to pay you the money you are owed. You should get a copy of the judgment.
If the Judge rules in your favor in a lawsuit for return of property, the judgment orders the other party to return your property to you, andlists a value for each item.If no one files an appeal within ten days, the judgment is final. The judgment lets you do certain things to get back your property or its value. You should get a copy of the judgment.
Can I appeal a General District Court order?
You can appeal from General District Court if the claim involves more than $50. Only a final order can be appealed from General District Court. You must file the appeal in writing. Ask for the "Civil Appeal Notice." This also is called "Form DC-475." The appeal must be filed within ten days after the final order is entered. If the tenth day falls on a Saturday, Sunday, or legal holiday, the appeal can be filed on the next business day. You must file the appeal in the Clerk's office of the General District Court that heard your case.
You also must file an appeal bond. The General District Court Judge sets the amount of the appeal bond. Ask for the "Civil Appeal Bond." This also is called "Form DC-460." The appeal bond must be filed within thirty days after the final order is entered. If the thirtieth day falls on a Saturday, Sunday, or legal holiday, the appeal can be filed on the next business day. You must file the appeal bond in the Clerk's office of the General District Court that heard your case.
An appeal bond is either a deposit of money or a signed promise that puts up a piece of property to stand good as a bond. This means the property can be sold to pay the appeal costs if you lose the appeal. If you win your case on appeal, your appeal bond will be returned to you. If you lose your case on appeal, the appeal bond will be used to pay any judgment or fees awarded to the other party.
You also must pay the Circuit Court filing fee and writ tax. If you don't have
enough money to pay this (or any other) fee, ask for the "Petition for Proceeding in Civil Case Without Payment of Fees or Costs." This also is called "Form CC-1414." You must be a Virginia resident to file this form. Only the Circuit Court Judge can grant your request to proceed on appeal without paying fees.
The appeal will be tried again in the Circuit Court as though the case had not been tried in General District Court. Unless ordered by a Judge, the General District Court order is not in effect during the appeal. You probably will need a lawyer to help with the appeal. Procedures in the Circuit Court are more complicated.