DIFFICULTY: Legal assistance is recommended
Initial Filing Fee: $50 to $200
Pennsylvania’s civil courts are divided into two main groups: Municipal Courts and Common Pleas Courts. These courts are responsible for trying a variety of civil cases, from money disputes to family issues to the transfer or possession of real estate. In terms of civil matters, these courts generally handle cases falling under the following guises:
• Civil: Noncriminal issues that concern a civil or private right or matter
• Family: Between husband, wife, or children and any of their blood relations
• Injury: Concerning any physical or psychological harm as well as harm to a person’s reputation
• Probate: The process of transferring legal titles and ownership of property to a deceased person’s heirs or those named in their will
• Property: Anything owned by a person or group / entity
Some of the forms for civil claims, such as those for child custody, are only available through the county courthouse, while others may be available through the county or state websites. It is important to check with your county’s clerk or prothonotary before beginning the process of filing a claim in civil court to make sure you have all the forms available. They will also be able to direct you to the right court and any additional information or actions you need to know or take.
Step 1: Decide What Type of Case You Have
There are different clerks for different matters, as well as drastically different forms and procedures. So consult the list above, classify your case, and then contact your local clerk to determine the process you will need to follow. When you eventually file (see Step 4), you will note the type of civil case you are filing on your cover sheet.
Step 2: Choose the District to File In
A case cannot be tried in a county unconnected with the case, so you will want to file the case in the county where you live, where the defendant lives, or where the event that is in dispute took place.
Step 3: Choose the Court to File the Case In
In Pennsylvania, there are several courts to choose from when making a civil claim. If the case is about money and the amount is under $10,000 ($12,000 in Philadelphia), then the case is tried in the Municipal Courts. This includes landlord-tenant disputes. If the case involves an amount of money higher than $10,000-$12,000, or concerns family members or an estate of some sort, then it is held in the Common Pleas Courts, which is where jury trials are also held.
Step 4: File a Complaint
To begin a civil case you must first file a complaint. The complaint form is a simple form that lists the name and information of both parties, the amount of remuneration that one party is seeking, and an explanation of the complaint. You will need to fill this form out and bring it with your to the clerk or prothonotary at the country courthouse in order to file it, at which time you also need to fill out a civil cover sheet, which is used for administrative purposes.
Step 5: File the Court Case
To file the case, you should bring several copies of all your filled out forms as well as any other pertinent information concerning your case to the appropriate county courthouse. A clerk or prothonotary will help you to file your case, will accept your payment of the necessary fees, and will direct you to serve the defendant their notarized copy of the case. There are a few variations from this method in the state, however, as Philadelphia uses an electronic filing system through their county website that handles all documents and fees related to civil claims.
Step 6: Serve the Defendant
Now that the complaint is filed, it is your responsibility to serve the defendant a copy of the papers so that they have a chance to respond. You can accomplish this in three ways: serve the defendant yourself, serve them through the mail, or (in extraordinary cases) have it served through alternative methods. To serve the defendant yourself, you need to hand a notarized copy of the complain to the defendant yourself, a family member at their residence over 18, a person in charge of their residence such as a landlord or desk clerk, or a person in charge of their place of work. When you mail the complaint, you must request a return receipt in order to verify that they have received and signed for it, or you need to retain the green receipt from first class mail as proof that you mailed it. In special cases, such as when the defendant cannot be found or there is some form of abuse involved in the case, service may be made through the newspaper or an official, though this requires court permission.
Step 7: Defendant Answers the Complaint
The defendant will need to answer the complaint that was served to them, choosing either to counter the arguments made against them or to consent to the terms put forward. If they agree to the terms and sign a paper saying so, then the case does not go to trial and the defendant is not required to show up before the judge for the decision to become official. If they choose to counter the complaint, however, then the case will go to trial.
Step 8: The Trial and Decision
At the trial, both sides will present (or “discover”) the relevant facts and documents. This includes document production, depositions or the questioning of witnesses, and interrogatories or written questions. If at any point you or the defendant decide to withdraw your complaint or counter complaint, or to settle outside of court, then one or both of you will need to fill out and submit a Notice of Settlement / Withdrawal. Once the case is decided you will need to file the Notice of Assignment of Judgment with the prothonotary or clerk to make it official. All that is left at that point is for either party to appeal the decision or for the debtor to pay any amount of money they owe.