Understanding PA’s Magisterial District Courts

Understanding PA’s Magisterial District Courts, Buzgon Davis Law Offices

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The magisterial district courts in Pennsylvania have jurisdiction to entertain certain civil and criminal matters. They can handle summary offenses and conduct preliminary hearings, and in some counties, the courts handle arraignments. Generally, the law limits the courts’ civil jurisdiction to claims of $12,000 or less.

Parties dissatisfied with the magisterial district court’s judgment have the right to appeal. However, ensuring you have a valid legal basis for the appeal and understanding the process before taking any step is beneficial.

What Is a Magisterial District Court?

Magisterial district courts are called “courts of limited jurisdiction” because their jurisdiction is restricted to certain matters. They are minor courts and are typically the first level in Pennsylvania’s judiciary. Magisterial district courts are involved in both the civil and criminal arenas.

In criminal matters, a magisterial district court judge handles preliminary hearings, summary offenses and, in some counties, arraignments. Pennsylvania’s rules of criminal procedure bind the magisterial district court judge. Regarding civil matters, the district courts in Pennsylvania are limited by the claim’s value and are guided by the rules of civil procedure.

PA’s Magisterial Courts

Understanding PA’s Magisterial District Courts, Buzgon Davis Law Offices

Pennsylvania has magisterial district courts in all of its counties except Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, which have their own municipal courts. Yet, both function similarly to the other magisterial district courts in the state. The magisterial district court judges are elected officials and are not required to be attorneys.

The courts have limited jurisdiction in civil and criminal matters:

Criminal Jurisdiction

Pennsylvania district courts generally have jurisdiction to handle summary offenses and preliminary hearings:

1. Summary Offenses

Summary offenses are the most minor type of offenses, usually punishable by a fine or short term of imprisonment. Although they may be considered minor, summary convictions may appear on background searches— they can taint your criminal record, so it helps to get the charges dismissed or expunged.

A defendant can appeal to the Court of Common Pleas within 30 days from the date of the decision if they receive an unfavorable judgment from the magisterial district court. The magisterial district court’s decision does not bind the Court of Common Pleas, which will review the case “de novo.” In other words, the court may decide the issues without referring to any legal conclusions or assumptions the previous court made.

2. Preliminary Hearings

When brought before a magistrate district court judge, a criminal defendant has two options. The individual can waive the preliminary hearing or have a preliminary hearing conducted.

The preliminary hearing is the procedural step in the criminal process, where the magisterial district court determines whether there is enough evidence to bind the case over for a Court of Common Pleas judge. This is called establishing a “prima facie” case. An individual is not pleading guilty when they waive a preliminary hearing— they are simply allowing the case to be bound over to the Court of Common Pleas.

However, suppose an individual chooses to proceed with a preliminary hearing. In that case, the magisterial district court judge will hear from witnesses, accept evidence and determine if there is enough evidence for a prima facie case to allow the case to proceed to the Court of Common Pleas. The evidentiary standard for a preliminary hearing is significantly lower than what it usually takes to find someone guilty of alleged charges.

The magisterial district court judge is not determining an individual’s guilt or innocence at this procedural stage. Assuming the defendant loses at the preliminary hearing or if the preliminary hearing is waived, the magisterial district court judge may set bail for the defendant, and the case will be sent to the Court of Common Pleas for further adjudication of the charges.

What Does It Mean for a Case to Be Transferred to the Court of Common Pleas?

When prosecutors present sufficient evidence against a defendant at the preliminary hearing and the judge determines a prima facie case has been established, the charge or case will be “held for court” or transferred to the Court of Common Pleas for adjudication as earlier indicated.

Civil Jurisdiction

Shifting gears, magisterial district courts also hear civil cases. However, being courts of limited jurisdiction, magisterial district courts are considered “small claims courts” and can only hear cases with an amount in controversy up to $12,000. Anything over $12,000 needs to be filed in the appropriate Court of Common Pleas.

Some examples of cases that come before a magisterial district court are landlord-tenant matters, violation of municipal ordinances and breaches of contract. Like summary offenses, if an individual is dissatisfied with the results at the magisterial district court, in most instances, that individual, within 30 days from the date of the decision, can appeal the decision to the Court of Common Pleas, which will review the case de novo.

What Is the Court of Common Pleas?

The courts of common pleas are trial courts of general jurisdiction in Pennsylvania. The courts sit above the minor courts in terms of hierarchy and are organized into 60 judicial districts. They handle appeals from the magisterial district courts and municipal courts, appeals not exclusively assigned to another court and matters involving families and children.

How to Appeal a Magisterial Court Decision in PA

Persons dissatisfied with judgments from the magisterial courts may appeal to the county’s local Court of Common Pleas of the county. The appellant needs to ensure they have a legitimate or reasonable disagreement with the district judge’s decision to avoid additional costs and frustration. Each Court of Common Pleas has local rules applying to that county. However, you may follow these steps to appeal a magisterial court decision:

  1. File the notice of appeal within 30 days from the date of the decision with the prothonotary in the county of the Court of Common Pleas, where the magisterial district judge’s office is located, to start the appeal process.
  2. Pay the appropriate filing fee. The amount varies from county to county, so it helps to find out from the prothonotary.
  3. Serve the notice of appeal on the other party and file proof of service with the prothonotary after notarizing it. You must do so 10 days or less after filing the notice appeal.
  4. If you were the defendant at trial, the plaintiff at trial, now the appellee, must file a complaint detailing their claims within 20 days from the date of service of the notice of appeal. If they fail to comply with this requirement, you may have their case against you dismissed.
  5. Where they file a complaint, you must file an answer within 20 days from the date you received the complaint and serve it on the other side.
  6. An arbitration hearing may be conducted to listen to your case. If you lose, you can appeal to the court and have a trial.

Should You Represent Yourself?

You may choose to represent yourself at the magisterial district court. However, consulting and hiring an attorney before proceeding to the magisterial district court is often worthwhile. Lawyers have the experience and knowledge to understand the strengths and weaknesses of your case and help you get the best possible results. They can also help you prepare and file according to court processes, which can be complex.

Contact Buzgon Davis Law Offices

Understanding PA’s Magisterial District Courts, Buzgon Davis Law Offices

Buzgon Davis Law Offices is a full-service law firm that represents clients in both civil and criminal matters before magisterial district judges and the procedural stages that follow. Our years of experience allow us to evaluate your case and prepare a solid strategy to help you succeed. We have strong ties with Lebanon County residents and strive to maintain friendly relationships with our clients while offering efficient legal services. Contact us today to schedule a consultation!

**The information in this blog is for informational purposes only, is not to be construed as legal advice and does not create an attorney/client relationship.

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