The procedures of the Magistrate Court are intended to promote the efficient resolution of disputes. Parties may represent themselves on matters before the Magistrate Court or may elect to have legal counsel represent them. Magistrate Court is the only Georgia court in which a corporation may represent itself in a civil matter. However, many parties find that hiring an attorney to represent them in Court allows their case to be presented effectively and efficiently, ensuring that all procedural and evidentiary rules are followed. A non-attorney may not represent a party other than themselves in any Georgia court. The Court will always try to accept into evidence all admissible and relevant evidence. However, if a party does not have admissible evidence or does not know how to have their evidence admitted, the Court cannot teach the parties those rules during trial.
A civil case is initiated by the Plaintiff filing a Complaint against the Defendant. The Complaint must set forth the basis of the claim that the Plaintiff has against the Defendant, provide the address of the Defendant and state a claim for damages. The Clerk of Magistrate Court has forms available for the Plaintiff to file the Complaint. The Plaintiff must also pay the filing and service fee to initiate the case.
- Filing fee (1 Defendant to be served): $97
- Service Fee for each additional Defendant: $50 each
There are no limits to the number of Plaintiffs or Defendants which may be parties to the case. However, venue must be proper in Columbia County under Georgia law.
After the Complaint is filed and the Filing Fees are paid, the Marshals will serve the Defendant with a copy of the lawsuit as required by law. The Defendant must then file an Answer to the Complaint within the time limits required by law. There are very specific time limitations on the filing of an Answer and the Defendant is charged with the responsibility of knowing and meeting those time demands. If the Defendant fails to file a timely Answer, the Plaintiff will receive a default judgment upon request without further notice to the Defendant for the amount set forth in the Complaint. If no specific dollar figure is requested in the Complaint, the Court will conduct a hearing on the issue of damages without further notice to the Defendant.
The Clerk of Magistrate Court has forms available for the Defendant to use in filing an Answer. However, no specific form is required. The Defendant may also file a Counterclaim against the Plaintiff, alleging that the Plaintiff owes damages to the Defendant. A Counterclaim is usually included within the Answer. There is no filing fee for the Answer. The Answer may allege that the Defendant does not owe anything to the Plaintiff or that the Defendant admits owing some amount but disagrees with the amount requested by the Plaintiff. Assuming that there is a timely Answer filed with the Clerk of Magistrate Court, the case will then be set for trial.
Civil cases are heard several times every month. Usually, the case will be heard by either the Chief Magistrate Judge or the Associate Magistrate Judge. The Clerk of Magistrate Court will send a trial notice to the parties at the address provided by the respective parties. It is important to keep the Clerk of Magistrate Court advised of any changes of address that may occur. The failure of a party to appear for trial will likely result in an adverse ruling to the party who failed to appear, including the dismissal of the case or a default judgment.
Prior to trial, the Georgia Rules of Magistrate Court require the parties to meet in person and discuss the possibility of settling the matter without a trial. This meeting will generally be conducted on the date of trial, prior to the case being heard. The parties are free to meet or speak by telephone prior to trial in an attempt to resolve the case and, in fact, the Court encourages such meetings. Once the trial begins, the parties lose control over their case and the resolution of an important matter is left to a judge who does not know the parties, their circumstances or other important facts. The Court only knows what is presented in Court and must decide the case based upon his or her factual findings and the law that applies to such facts. Frequently, neither party receives a judgment that is 'perfect' from their respective points of view. If the parties settle their case on terms that they agree upon, both parties generally leave the Courthouse satisfied. If the parties are able to settle their case, the Court will be willing to make that settlement a written, binding Order of the Court upon request. If the case proceeds to trial, both parties will receive the judgment of the Court by which they will be required to abide.
At trial, the Plaintiff will present evidence first and the Defendant will have the right to cross examine (ask questions of) the witnesses who testify. After the Plaintiff has concluded their presentation of evidence, the Defendant will have the right to present evidence and the Plaintiff will have the right of cross examination. The Court may ask questions from the bench in an attempt to address the heart of the matter and keep the parties on point. At the conclusion of all of the evidence, the Court will either announce a judgment or take the case under advisement. In either circumstance a written order will be sent to both parties by mail.
There are no jury trials in Magistrate Court. All civil cases are heard by a judge, this type of trial is commonly referred to as a bench trial. After a final judgment is rendered either party may appeal their case to the Superior Court of Columbia County within time limits established by law and, within the context of that appeal, request a jury trial. An appeal requires the payment of costs by the party seeking the appeal and, upon payment of those costs, the case will be transferred to Superior Court.
This page is intended to provide a brief overview of the process of a civil case in Magistrate Court. This site is not intended to provide legal advice and the Court is specifically prohibited from giving legal advice. The Court encourages all parties who are considering legal action to seek the advice of an attorney before proceeding.
Going to Trial for all Parties
No information contained in this or any other Internet Site can replace the advice of a trained attorney who is the best person to provide advice and counseling on legal matters. In fact, Georgia law prohibits the Court from providing legal advice to anyone. However, many parties to civil litigation in Magistrate Court elect to represent themselves in Court. There is no requirement that the parties have an attorney but many parties elect to retain counsel to represent them in Court because they do not know the rules of law which affect their case. This document is intended to provide a pretrial checklist for parties to consider when preparing for trial.
The rules of Magistrate Court require that all parties meet prior to trial in an attempt to settle their case. In the Magistrate Court of Columbia County, this meeting will be required just prior to the time that the case is set for trial. If the case can be settled, the Court can review the settlement agreement and, in most cases, can reduce the agreement to a written order of the Court.
If the case cannot be resolved during the pretrial conference, the case will be called for trial. You must be prepared and on time at the time the case is called for trial. When the case is called for trial, the Court will expect all parties to be present and prepared for trial. You must have in Court all witnesses, papers, photos, or other evidence you intend to introduce at trial when the case is called for trial. If you are late you may lose your case automatically without an opportunity to be heard.
The following is merely a checklist, which lists some issues to consider when preparing your case:
All parties shall keep the clerk informed of any address change. All court notices come by regular mail. The Court will not attempt to locate you beyond sending a trial notice.
The parties must bring to Court the following (when applicable):
- Written contracts: leases, contracts, receipts, letters, notes, etc.
- Bills or estimates: You must bring the person who prepared the estimate(s) to court with you. Generally, you cannot introduce into evidence an estimate (even if the estimate is written or even notarized) unless the person who made the estimate is present in Court to testify
- Canceled checks, credit card statements or other evidence of payment
- Photographs: The Court will not generally accept into evidence any video tape which contains a narration of the events being depicted. If you have a form of media (i.e. video, audio, digital recording) that requires a machine to display the recording, you must bring the appropriate player with you. Do not assume that the Court has the means to 'play' any recording. Obviously, it is much easier and reliable to merely provide photographs of the matter you wish to portray.
- Witnesses: Written or notarized statements will usually not be accepted. Bring all witnesses in person. Witnesses must generally have first hand knowledge of the matter they are to testify about. A witness who heard or saw the thing they are testifying about has first hand information. Hearsay testimony will not generally be allowed. However, the number of witnesses who testify is irrelevant. If several people saw or heard the same thing, the party must decide exactly how many of those witnesses need to testify. Impartial witnesses who have no stake in the outcome of the case are generally the best witnesses.
- Other evidence: This Checklist is not intended to provide an exhaustive list of all types of evidence that may be introduced. Your case may be somehow unique and require a matter of evidence that is not contained in this list. However, it is illogical to come to Court to try your case and leave something related to the controversy at home.
- Subpoenas: If you want a witness to come to Court, you must have a subpoena (Order to Appear) issued prior to trial for some witnesses to make sure that they appear or to excuse them from work. If you need a subpoena to be issued, you must make prior arrangements with the Court in person and you must make those arrangements in enough time to have the subpoena issued and served.
If the case involves damage to property, the Plaintiff will need evidence of the Defendant's responsibility for the damages, the amount of the damage, medical bills, repair bills, proof of lost wages or other losses. If the case involves damage to property, the Plaintiff must be able to prove the value of the property prior to the damage and the value after the damage. The party claiming damage must be able to prove the value themselves or bring someone to Court who is qualified. The Court cannot make any award based upon a 'guess' as to any losses. Damages must always be proven by live testimony.
For the Plaintiff
A primary consideration for the Plaintiff to consider is whether the party that is named as the Defendant is actually liable to the Plaintiff. Just because a person is an officer or an employee of a corporation does not make him liable. Do the research prior to filing the lawsuit to make sure you know what legal entity is liable to you.
The Plaintiff must prove the amount of the claim. If the amount you requested in the original complaint has changed, you must amend your complaint and a copy of that amendment must be sent to the opposing party.
For the Defendant
The Defendant must timely file an answer to the Plaintiff's claim. The Defendant may defend the case on several grounds and most must be included in the initial answer. Is the proper party named in the Complaint? Is there another party who is actually liable to the Plaintiff? Does the Defendant deny that any sum is owed the Plaintiff or does the Defendant admit owing some amount to the Plaintiff but disagrees with the amount claimed? All of these issues and other issues must be included in the initial Answer.
The Plaintiff owes Defendant money and Defendant has set forth its counter-claim with a dollar amount within the answer filed with the Court. Your counter-claim must be proven in the same way as the Plaintiff's claim must be proven.
If the Defendant fails to timely file an answer, the law assumes that all of the facts contained within the Complaint are true and the Court will grant a Default Judgment to the Plaintiff in the amount claimed in the Complaint.
Every case is different and the foregoing is only a checklist of matters that frequently arise in court. The parties are required to present their case and are expected to know the rules of evidence and procedure. The court will decide the case based upon evidence presented at trial. Again, the court urges all parties to seek legal advice before proceeding with a legal claim or defense.