DIFFICULTY: Meant to be done without a lawyer, but you may wish to seek advice
Initial Filing Fee: $100-$350 depending on the type of case, the county you file in and the number of defendants to be served
Every state handles civil court slightly differently. Some only have two types of courts, while others, like Georgia, divide the responsibility even further. The Magistrate court handles anything up to $15,000 in all counties for civil cases but small claims cases are handled by the Municipal courts up to $15,000. Probate court handles any estate cases, divorces are handled in Superior court and State court handles any civil proceedings that exceed $15,000.
Most civil cases end up in the Magistrate court and the process is meant to be the most efficient and cost effective way to resolve disputes. Civil cases include things like monies owed, claims for damage to your person or your property, landlord disputes, writs of possession and breach of contract. If any of these claims exceed the price point they have to go to the State court and are allowed to have a jury trial.
Step 1: Know What Kind of Case You Have
You need to know what type of case you have as it affects how the case will be tried, where it will be tried and what court you need to work with. There are a number of different types of civil cases that can be brought to justice.
• Real Property: These cases revolve around a lien, trust deed, mortgage or other land/property based dispute. Often these are larger than the Magistrate court and many are probate issues.
• Product Liability: Against a manufacturer or seller of something that caused injury to a person or property due to a defect or breach of duty to provide relevant instructions to avoid injury.
• Professional Tort or Negligence: allegations of malpractice other than medicine
• Medical malpractice: Medical malpractice and injury
• Other Torts: Anything regarding a civil wrong that does not fall under product liability or professional tort
• Workmen’s Compensation: cases against an employer regarding injury or disease
• Administrative Appeal: cases that are being appealed from a decision by a non-judicial administrative agency that has to do with the implementation and execution of legislation
• Complex Litigation: complex issues of law or fact unlikely to be resolved through any other type of case
• Other Civil Ideas: Any other civil action not covered in the above mentioned definitions
Georgia does not require a Case Designation Form like some other states require, but the type of case will be laid out in the forms you do file.
Step 2: Choose the Correct County
Some states have you file the complaint in the county where the problem happened, but in Georgia you file the complaint in the county where the person lives. If you are suing multiple people and they happen to live in different counties, you file the complaint in the first named defendant’s county. This is considered the “jurisdiction” of the case.
Step 3: Choose the Court to File the Case With
It is fairly straightforward in Georgia when it comes to which court to file with. Under $15,000 should be the Magistrate court, if it has to do with an estate it needs to be in probate court, if it more than $15,000 it needs to be filed with the State Court. Divorces are separate and handled by the Superior court of the county. While a divorce can be considered a civil proceeding, it falls into its own category in Georgia.
Step 4: File the Complaint
In Georgia there are no specific forms you have to fill out in order to file a civil complaint but the Clerk of the Magistrate Court has forms available that will make the filing easier. There are specific forms for divorce and probate, but anything handled by the Magistrate court can be written however you like as long as it includes the complaint, the basis of the claim, the address of the defendant and the claim you intend to file for damages. You will pay the filing fee when you file the forms.
Step 5: Serve the Defendant
In the state of Georgia, the defendant is served by the Marshalls. This is a practice that was adopted in order to avoid face-to-face confrontations that often resulted in negative outcomes. In some other states you have to pay someone to serve the defendant or have to do it yourself.
Step 6: Defendant Response to Complaint
Depending on the type of case there are very specific time frames the respondent has in which to reply to the claim. They can do so at the Magistrate Court and with the forms provided or by a statement of their own making. They can also choose to file a counterclaim against you.
Step 7: Any Pretrial Proceedings
The Georgia Rules of Magistrate require at least one pretrial meeting that is used as an attempt at arbitration. The goal is to clear the case without having to go to court. There can be other pretrial meetings to determine what the best course of action is or to make lists of witnesses, etc. Once the case goes to trial, the parties lose all control over the outcome and are bound by what the judge decides.
Step 8: The Trial
Both sides will present their case in front of the judge. The Plaintiff begins and after the conclusion of evidence the Defendant has the right to present his evidence. The court can ask direct questions in this type of trial. The judge renders a decision and if either party is dissatisfied there is an appeals process; sometimes a jury trial can be requested, but it requires payment of any additional fees.