Magistrate Court Attorneys
The lowest level of the Pennsylvania court system is the magisterial district courts, located in office buildings around the state. These courts are known as the “small claims courts,” where individuals and businesses bring small lawsuits against each other. The law allows these courts to hear disputes up to $12,000, which means the plaintiff and defendant often bring their attorneys to the hearing to increase their chances of winning.
What to expect at the Magistrate hearing
The Magistrate judge presides over the hearing just as a state or federal court judge presides in those courtrooms. The hearing is held in a small courtroom usually set up with an elevated bench for the judge and two tables in front for the plaintiff, defendant, and their attorneys. Each side has the opportunity to present witnesses and evidence for their side, and the other party may cross-examine their witnesses. The plaintiff goes first, and the defendant goes second.
Every Magistrate judge is different, and those differences have a big impact on how the hearing goes. Some judges are very involved and will cut the parties off when they start rambling. Those judges like to ask a lot of questions themselves to get to the point. Other judges may be willing to let the parties say almost whatever they want to say.
Tips for success
Going to a hearing before a magisterial district court judge can be intimidating. Unfortunately, many parties make common mistakes that cause them to lose their cases. To heighten your likelihood of success, consider the following:
- Hire an attorney. There is a lot of money at stake in your magistrate hearing. You shouldn’t go in to the hearing without a professional on your side fighting for your rights.
- Arrive early. Check in at least 15 minutes before the hearing. Do not ever arrive late to the hearing because you may lose by default.
- Know the legal issues. Keep your case focused on the issues that will determine the outcome of the case. You will annoy the judge if you ramble and present lots of irrelevant evidence. For instance, if you are evicting a tenant solely because of nonpayment of rent, focus on establishing the rent and the nonpayment.
- Bring witnesses with firsthand knowledge. The attorney for the other party will object if you or your witnesses try to testify about events you don’t have firsthand knowledge of. Make sure you bring witnesses who saw or heard the relevant events.
- Bring corroborating evidence. As much as possible, bring documentation that supports your story to raise your case above the “he said, she said” level. When possible, always remember to bring at least 3 copies so you, the other party, and the judge can each have a copy during the hearing.
- Make timely objections. It is very important that you make the right legal objections and arguments when the other party offers objectionable evidence. You can keep out documents and testimony that would help prove the case against you. This is one area where having an attorney on your side makes a big difference.
- Cross-examine the other party’s witnesses. After each opposing witness testifies, you have the opportunity to cross-examine. Plan ahead with some leading questions you want to ask. Focus on inconsistencies, bias, credibility, and the limitations of that witness’s knowledge.
- Be professional. Dress in professional attire to show respect for the court. Address the judge as “your honor.” Address the other parties as “Mr.” or “Ms.”
- Address the judge, not the other party. Make all arguments to the judge. You will never convince the other party to agree with you, and that is not the point of a hearing. You are there to convince the judge to agree with your case.
- Be brief. As important as your case seems to you, remember that the judge probably hears dozens just like it every week. The easier you make it for the judge to see the elements of your case and your legal arguments, the more likely it is that you will win.
Experienced litigation attorneys know the above tips backwards and forwards. At KM&A, we typically charge a reasonable flat fee for our legal representation in a Magistrate action. Our fees are reasonable enough that it absolutely makes sense to bring professional representation with you to the hearing. We work with you before the hearing, gathering evidence to support our case and preparing you for what to expect.
Kraemer, Manes & Associates LLC “KM&A” is a law firm serving all of Pennsylvania with our principal offices in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Call KM&A in western Pennsylvania at 412-626-5626 or in eastern Pennsylvania at 215-618-9185. KM&A can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.