General District Courts: The Legal Frontier of Virginia
By Rachel Shafer.
Each city and county in Virginia houses a general district court (GDC). These courts deal with traffic violations, hear minor criminal cases (misdemeanors), and handle preliminary hearings for major criminal cases (felonies). These courts have exclusive control to hear civil cases with claims of $4,500 or less, whereas they share authority with the circuit court for hearing cases with claims between $4,500 and $25,000. But of course, there must be an exception to this distinction: unlawful detainer (fancy term for eviction) suits which exceed the $25,000 threshold can be heard in GDC if they include a request for rent for commercial or agricultural property. These trial courts have limited civil/criminal jurisdiction in all 32 districts of Virginia. Some examples of civil cases heard in GDC include contract disputes, personal injury actions, tenant disputes, or traffic offenses.
Warrant in What?
To initiate a civil suit in GDC, one must file a “Warrant in Debt” with the Clerk of the Court and pay a filing fee. It is a fill-in form to initiate a lawsuit. Many of our clients have looked at this form and asked for help to decipher it. For a warrant in debt, very little information is needed except the following: plaintiff’s name and address, defendant’s name and address, claim amount, and reason for the suit (short as a few words). Note: Make sure the name of the person, business, or corporation being sued is listed/spelled correctly! Here is what an warrant in debt in one of our cases looks like:
We’ve circled the most important information so you know where to find it: the amount sued for; the “return date” (called a hearing date on the warrant in debt); and the trial date. The return date is the date on which the defendant and plaintiff must appear to set the case for trial and, if the defendant wants to, ask for pleadings to be ordered (see below). Return dates are often “cattle calls,” in that many (dozens sometimes) cases are set for the same return date and time. However, we recommend counsel check-in with the clerk before the set time; often clerks will call cases with counsel first. East GDC has its own unique procedures, however.
Mark the Calendar!
Depending on the nature of the claim, the law determines how much time there is to initiate a claim. This period of time is called the “statute of limitations.” Just remember, time is of the essence when filing a claim. When a defendant is served with the Warrant in Debt, there will be a “return date” on the Warrant. This is the date that both parties must appear in Court to set the matter for trial. GDC does not have trial by jury-all cases in this court are heard by the judge, also known as a “bench trial.” One thing to remember is that under Virginia law, corporations cannot be represented by individuals- they must be represented by counsel. (The only exception is for the “small claims” division of GDC- for claims under $5,000–a different court from GDC and no lawyers are allowed!).
Particulars of Pleadings
At the return date, the defendant can request a “Bill of Particulars.” This is a pleading that offers more specifics on the nature of the lawsuit and the details of the plaintiff’s claims. A “Grounds of Defense” is the defendant’s “answer” to the claims the plaintiff is making against it. The judge sets the deadlines for both of these pleadings; the judge also schedules the trial for, typically, 60-90 days out from the return date.
No Real Discovery but Appeal of Right
In GDC, there is no formal discovery process before trial. This means the usual tools an attorney has in their hands for litigation, such as obtaining documents, hiring experts, and filing extensive pleadings, are not at their disposal. Some things to keep in mind for GDC:
- Subpoena Duces Tecum (SDT) are allowed and issued by an attorney or the court to obtain necessary documents. (An SDT is a summons that orders someone to attend court or hand over relevant documents).
- Depositions are not allowed in GDC. (A deposition is the process of giving sworn testimony or evidence for use in court or discovery). But once again, an exception: With personal injury cases, a doctor may be deposed.
- GDC is not a “court of record,” which translated means there is not a court reporter transcribing testimony or spoken word.
- An appeal of right can be made to the appropriate Circuit Court.
- An appeal against the GDC decision must be filed within 10 calendar days. The judge sets the amount of the bond. If appealed by the defendants, he or she must be prepared to file a bond; and if appealed by the plaintiff, he or she must be prepared to pay filing fees.
- Bonds must be paid within 30 days of date of judgment to then proceed with case to Circuit Court.
As seen above, things are just a bit different in GDC.
Is GDC the Wild Frontier?
Seasoned legal professionals have called the Virginia GDC the “Wild, Wild West.” With few guidelines, a quick timeline, and a limited discovery process, GDC is on a frontier of its own. At trial in GDC, rules of evidence can be loosely enforced, the process can be very informal, and plaintiffs are often pro se (meaning they represent themselves without a lawyer). Judges tend, therefore, to allow plaintiffs a lot of leeway in presenting testimony and evidence. Trial are fast-often under an hour–and the judge rules from the bench. Quick justice-Wild, Wild West style!