In Virginia, individuals frequently represent themselves in small claims court lawsuits. Virginia's small claims courts have jurisdiction over any civil dispute in which the plaintiff is seeking a money judgment of up to five thousand dollars or the recovery of property up to five thousand dollars in value. Although a party may retain counsel for representation in such matters, Virginia small claims courts are operated in a more informal manner than Circuit Court litigation. This enables individuals to represent themselves effectively.
Obtain a form to initiate the lawsuit from the Clerk's Office of the Courthouse where the defendant resides. If money damages are being sought, the appropriate form is called a Warrant in Debt. If the return of physical property is the goal, a Warrant in Detinue is the proper form. File the appropriate form in the Clerk's Office and pay the required filing fee.
Read More: Difference Between Small Claims Vs. Civil Court
Arrange to have a copy of the suit paper personally served on the defendant by either the County's Sheriff Department or by a private process server and pay the required service fee.
Request from the Clerk's Office subpoenas for any witnesses you expect to call to testify. Arrange for the Sheriff to serve each subpoena at least two to three weeks before the scheduled hearing date. Retain the Sheriff's proof of service for each subpoena and bring it with you to the hearing, as you will need this if the witness fails to appear.
Arrive at the courthouse at least one hour before the time set for your case so as to ensure adequate time for parking, security clearance and locating the designated courtroom.
Present a brief overview of your claim by telling the judge in a clear and concise manner why you are entitled to monetary damages.
While presenting evidence during your portion of the case, elaborate on the opening statement by explaining to the judge the facts of the dispute. Introduce copies of all supporting documents and label each with a numbered exhibit sticker.
Call to the witness stand any additional witnesses who hold knowledge or information necessary to prove your case. Elicit testimony from witnesses you call by asking simple, open questions that do not suggest the answer to the witness. A party generally may not ask leading questions of its own called witnesses.
Cross-examine the defendant and witnesses by politely but firmly asking simple questions designed to elicit additional information needed for your side of the case.
- Clerks and assistant clerks are generally excellent resources for questions concerning filing requirements and other administrative matters.
- The Magistrate will hear several cases on the same day. Listen carefully to any cases that are called before your case, as you can gain valuable insights as to the particular Magistrate Judge's style and preferences. By watching other cases unfold, you will also become more familiar and comfortable with the process.
- Typically, the judges require all parties to discuss possible settlement of the case before beginning any trials. Consider and decide your bottom line settlement position before the court date so that you can participate in the required good faith discussion.
- Magistrate judges wish to move cases quickly. State your cases completely, but succinctly. Above all, be well prepared and organized so that you do not waste time and annoy the judge by stumbling for necessary documents and information.
- Magistrate judges take "no nonsense" approaches to cases. They are seldom swayed by emotions and tend to favor the party that appears the more reasonable. Avoid overstatement.
- When cross-examining adverse witnesses, ask leading questions. These are questions that suggest that answer, typically by ending with such phrases as "isn't that true?" or "didn't you?"
- Virginia law imposes limitations periods during which a lawsuit must be filed. Confirm the applicable limitations period well in advance of suit filing to ensure that the suit papers are filed before the period elapses.
- Although a subpoena is necessary only for witnesses who will not appear in court at your request, you should issue a subpoena if there is any question whatsoever. Otherwise, you face the possibility of being unable to prove an essential element of the case if the witness fails to appear.
- Avoid rude or disrespectful remarks and conduct, even to opposing parties and witnesses. Judges frown on unprofessional behavior and may well rule against you if your conduct is offensive.
This article was written by Legal Beagle staff. If you have any questions, please reach out to us on our contact us page.