District Justice Actions - Being Your Own Lawyer in Small Claim Court in Pennsylvania
Abraham Lincoln once observed that a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client. The dangers of representing
oneself in court are even greater for a layperson. Most businesspeople know this, and would never dream of going into court
without legal counsel. However, many small businesspeople also believe that going into small claims court to collect a debt
is somehow an exception to the general rule.
In Pennsylvania, civil claims for damages in the principal amount of $12,000.00 or less may be filed before the local
district justice. The procedural rules for prosecuting civil claims before a district justice are far less stringent than
the rules of civil procedure governing practice before the county Courts of Common Pleas, with far fewer traps for the
unwary. As a result, many small business owners try their luck at collecting on delinquent accounts in district court,
without the assistance of a lawyer.
On its face, the process is a simple one. After completing and filing the standard form civil complaint available through
the district justiceís office, the district court notifies the defendant/debtor of his or her right to defend the claim. Of
course, properly filling out the complaint is only the first of many hurdles which an unrepresented plaintiff must overcome.
If the defendant fails to notify the court of his intent to defend the claim or fails to appear for a hearing, the district
justice will enter a default judgment, awarding the plaintiff/creditor the amount requested in the complaint.
However, if the defendant gives notice of intent to defend or appears in court to defend the case, the plaintiff will have
to present and prove his case before the district justice (justice of the peace). While the rules of evidence in civil cases before district
justices are relaxed in comparison to the rules that prevail in most state and federal courts, there are nevertheless rules
of evidence with which the parties must comply. Plaintiffs who are not familiar with the rules of evidence can find that
they have lost meritorious cases to defendants who have learned those rules.
For instance, many non-lawyers assume that the prohibition against hearsay evidence applies only to oral statements made
outside of court. Plaintiffs representing themselves often proceed on this assumption by having key witnesses sign witness
affidavits for submission to the court, in lieu of having the witness appear before the district justice to present live
testimony. If the defendant knows to object to this testimony as hearsay, the affidavit will be excluded from evidence, and
the plaintiff may well be without a piece of evidence critical to the proof of the plaintiffís case.
On the other hand, a custodian of records or office manager for a business will have little problem submitting bills,
invoices and other routine business records, which, pursuant to the District Justice Rules, are specifically admissible
without evidence of their accuracy or authenticity. However, if there is any significant factual dispute about whether
goods or services were provided to the defendant, or whether those goods or services were defective or non-conforming, an
office manager or records custodian with no personal knowledge of the delivery of the goods or services will not be able to
effectively counter the defendantís defense without presenting the live testimony of either the actual provider of the goods
or services, or in some cases, an expert able to testify as to the adequacy of the goods or services provided.
Winning the case before the justice of the peace is only the first half of the battle. If the plaintiff wins the case after
hearing, or even if the plaintiff wins the case by reason of the defendantís failure to attend the district justice hearing,
the defendant can nevertheless appeal the district justice award to the county Court of Common Pleas, in which case the case
will proceed anew, as if the district justice proceeding had never occurred. Because the rules of civil procedure at the
common pleas level are far more complex than at the district justice level, the plaintiff will then have little choice but
to hire legal counsel to prosecute the claim at the common pleas level.
Even if the defendant fails to appeal the district justice award, collecting on the award can be far more difficult than
obtaining that award in the first place. If the defendant fails to voluntarily pay the judgment, then after the expiration
of the thirty-day appeal period the plaintiff can either ask the district justice to order execution on the judgment or else
transfer the judgment to the Court of Common Pleas of any county for execution there. Generally, execution takes place in
the county where the defendantís residence or property is located and determining whether to execute through the district
justice or through the Court of Common Pleas requires the consideration of a number of factors. While execution through the
office of the district justice is relatively inexpensive, it is also limited to tangible, non-perishable personal property
which a constable is able to locate within the county where the execution order is issued. If the only property available
for execution is real estate, a bank account, or other intangible property, the plaintiff will have no choice but to pursue
execution through the Court of Common Pleas and the County Sheriff.
The simple process of going to the local district justice to collect on a debt often can become maddeningly complex. You
may find that having competent legal counsel involved in your case from the outset will ultimately save you time, money, and
The attorneys of Wolf, Baldwin & Associates, P.C. have a great deal of experience litigating small claims
cases before District Justices, and dealing with appeals from District Justice cases. We invite you to contact us to schedule an appointment to discuss your case.
The materials contained in this web site do not constitute legal advice, and contact with us through this web site does not establish an attorney-client relationship. The legal citations quoted in this web site may not be up-to-date. We provide these materials for general information purposes only. We make no claims, promises, or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness, or adequacy of the information, whether contained on this web site or any other site to which we might link. No web site can substitute for the fully informed, reasoned judgment of a lawyer. You should not rely on any material contained in this web site - instead you should contact one of our attorneys for a full consultation.