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Virginia Small Claims Courts

Virginia's general district courts have small claims divisions that adjudicate civil cases where the amount in dispute does not exceed $5,000. Parties to a small claims case cannot hire attorneys to represent them in their case.

The following links provide information and resources you may find helpful in your small claims case:

This article explains Virginia's small claims courts, including how to file, how to respond to a small claims case, and how to enforce a judgment.

Virginia's Small Claims Court Explained

Virginia designed its small claims division to allow parties to represent themselves throughout the small claims process. The small claims trial follows informal rules, procedures, and rules of evidence, and there are no jury trials. Parties cannot hire attorneys to pursue or defend against a small claims lawsuit.

Any adult may file a small claims case. Businesses and corporations may also file small claims lawsuits. The person or entity that files a civil lawsuit is the plaintiff. The person or entity they sue is the defendant. The plaintiffs and defendants are known as parties to the case.

Virginia's small claims courts have limited jurisdiction, meaning they can only decide certain civil claims. In general, they can only decide disputes involving money or the return of personal property. They also cannot award more than $5,000 in a single case.

With those jurisdictional limits and dollar amount in mind, the small claims courts can hear the following types of cases, among others:

The small claims court cannot hear the following types of cases, among others:

  • Criminal cases
  • Evictions
  • Cases where the plaintiff requests the defendant do (or stop doing) something (e.g., remove a fence from the plaintiff's property)

If the small claims court does not have jurisdiction to hear your case, consider filing it in a different division of the general district court.

How To File a Small Claims Case

A plaintiff who seeks money must file a Warrant in Debt form with the small claims division to begin their lawsuit. A plaintiff who seeks the return of personal property valued at $5,000 or less must file a Warrant in Detinue form.

The plaintiff needs to indicate the following information to file the forms:

  • The names of all plaintiffs and defendants in the lawsuit
  • The addresses and contact information for each party
  • A description of the plaintiff's claim and the legal basis for it
  • If they file a Warrant in Debt, the amount of money they claim the defendant owes them
  • If they file a Warrant in Detinue, a description of the property and its value

The court will charge a filing fee when the plaintiff files their claim. The filing fee may vary based on the county where the plaintiff files their case. The clerk of the court at your county courthouse's clerk's office can provide more information about filing fees and how to file a civil warrant. The state also provides a fee calculator online.

Where and When To File a Claim

The plaintiff must file their lawsuit in one of the following counties:

  • Where the defendant lives or works
  • If the claim involves a personal injury or property damage, where the injury or damage occurred
  • If the claim involves a contract dispute, where the defendant performed or was supposed to perform their contractual obligations

Every civil cause of action has a corresponding statute of limitations. The plaintiff must file their claim within the period set by the statute of limitations. If they do not file their case in time, the court cannot hear it. The statute of limitations varies between claims. Read FindLaw's Virginia Civil Statute of Limitations Laws article for more information.

Serving the Defendant

After the court accepts the plaintiff's filings, the plaintiff must notify the defendant of the lawsuit. To do so, they must serve the defendant with a copy of the civil warrant to begin their case. Depending on where the plaintiff filed their case, they may have to serve other court forms on the defendant. Ask the court clerk for more specific information.

A plaintiff must serve the defendant at least 10 days before the scheduled trial date. Failing to serve the defendant could result in extra time and expense.

The plaintiff may send the required documents to the defendant via first-class mail. They must also fill out and file a Certificate of Mailing Posted Service form with the court.

The plaintiff may contact the sheriff's office or a private process server. These entities will charge a service fee and serve the defendant. If the plaintiff chooses these options, they may still send the forms to the defendant via first-class mail.

Responding to a Small Claims Case

The documents served on the defendant will include a return date. The return date informs the parties of their court date and time.

The defendant does not need to file an answer to the civil warrant. They can attend the scheduled trial date and present their defenses to the plaintiff's claims.

If the defendant has a claim against the plaintiff, they may file a written counterclaim. The counterclaim does not need to relate to the plaintiff's claims. For example, if the plaintiff filed a dispute involving a contract, the defendant could file a counterclaim involving property damage they alleged the plaintiff caused. The counterclaim cannot exceed the $5,000 limit.

A defendant may request to remove the small claims court case to the district court. The defendant must file a Removal to General District Court form to request a removal. The district court follows formal rules of procedure and evidence, and it allows parties to hire attorneys to represent them. If the defendant wishes, they may hire an attorney to represent them in the small claims court regarding the removal.

Preparing for the Small Claims Trial

Either party may request that the court postpone the small claims trial. The requesting party must show good cause for the postponement.

All parties must attend the small claims court trial. If the plaintiff does not appear for the trial, the court may dismiss their case. If the defendant does not appear, the court may enter a default judgment in the plaintiff's favor. If the court enters a default judgment in the plaintiff's favor, the plaintiff wins the case.

The parties can communicate and try to settle their dispute before the small claims trial. If they settle their case, they must inform the court clerk of the settlement.

If the parties cannot settle their case, they should prepare for trial. This may include gathering evidence to introduce to the court, such as copies of contracts, photographs, or medical bills.

The parties may also bring witnesses to testify at trial. They can also file a subpoena to compel a witness to testify in court. To do so, they must file a Request for Witness Subpoena form with the court at least 10 days before the trial.

The Small Claims Trial

The courts often schedule multiple small claims court trials on a single day, so the parties may have to wait for the court to call their case.

On the hearing date, the plaintiff will present their arguments and evidence first. This may include an opening argument, introducing evidence, and calling witnesses to testify. The plaintiff has the burden of proof, meaning they must convince the judge that the defendant is liable for the plaintiff's claimed relief.

Once the plaintiff rests their case, the defendant will present their defenses and evidence. If they filed a counterclaim, they have the burden of proof regarding it.

Due to the informality of the small claims court rules, the judge may allow you to introduce evidence that they wouldn't allow in a general district court case. The judge may also take a more active role, such as asking parties for clarification on issues.

The judge may announce their decision at the trial's conclusion, or they may issue their judgment at a later date. The court will send a written judgment to the parties.

Appeals

Either party may appeal the small claims court's judgment. If the judgment amount exceeds $50, the appealing party must request a new trial in the circuit court. They must file a Notice of Appeal form within 10 days of the judgment's date.

Once a party files an appeal, the court will set an appeal bond. The party must post the appeal bond within 30 days of its posting. The court will not hear the appeal if they do not post bond.

The circuit court will hold a new trial. Unlike the small claims court, the circuit court follows formal court rules, procedural rules, and the rules of evidence. Parties may hire attorneys for their appeal. Consider contacting a civil litigation attorney if you appeal a small claims court's judgment.

Satisfying a Judgment

If the court enters a money judgment in your favor, you are the judgment creditor. The person or entity that owes you money is the judgment debtor. The judgment creditor is responsible for collecting the judgment from the judgment debtor. The court will not collect the judgment for you.

The parties may discuss how the debtor will pay the creditor. Once the debtor pays the creditor in full, the creditor must file a Satisfaction of Judgment form with the court.

Suppose the debtor does not pay the creditor. The creditor has several options to enforce the judgment. These options include the following:

  • They may get a Garnishment Summons from the court, which allows them to garnish the debtor's wages or bank account.
  • They may obtain a lien against some of the debtor's real estate or other property. If the debtor sells the property, the creditor may use some of the sale's proceeds to satisfy the judgment. The creditor must file an Abstract of Judgment with the circuit court to obtain the lien.
  • They may send the debtor an Answer to Interrogatories form to inquire about the debtor's assets.
  • They may obtain a Writ of Fieri Facias to allow the sheriff to seize some of the debtor's property. The sheriff may then sell the property at a public auction. The debtor can use the sale proceeds to satisfy the judgment.

Judgment collection involves complex legal procedures, additional filing fees, and other court costs. Consider contacting a civil litigation attorney for legal advice regarding the satisfaction of judgment methods available.

Unsure About Your Small Claims Court Case? Contact an Attorney

Although parties to a small claims case cannot retain an attorney to represent them at the small claims trial, they may contact an attorney for preliminary legal advice about their claim. An attorney can provide legal information about appeals and collecting a judgment after the trial. Consider contacting a civil litigation attorney near you for more information about your small claims case.

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