By: Attorney William J. Edwards
The Magistrate’s Court can be a great resource to the community. The most common issues people think that are heard in this Court are typically evictions, petit crimes and speeding tickets. However, this Court serves a purpose that most people do not know to utilize, which is the Civil Division of the Court that allows people to settle small claims. Magistrate’s Court is a good venue to allow litigants to resolve their civil disputes without the cost and expense of an attorney.
Magistrates have jurisdiction of almost all civil cases when the amount in controversy does not exceed $7,500. The two areas where the Magistrate’s Court does not have jurisdiction is where the state or a governmental entity is a party or when title to real property comes into question. Magistrate’s Court is often referred to as the “People’s Court” because it is a venue where litigants can represent themselves.
Although Magistrate’s Court has the same pleading requirement as in Circuit Court, and it adopts the Rules of Civil Procedure, the Magistrate’s Court rules themselves are designed with pro se litigants in mind. The rules themselves “shall be construed to secure the just, speedy and inexpensive determination of every civil case within the jurisdiction of the Magistrate’s Court. All civil actions in the Magistrate’s Court shall be conducted in such a manner as to do substantial justice between the parties according the rules of substantive of law.”
Our office often refers litigants to Magistrate’s Court. Although we could provide representation, the cost of that representation too many times exceeds the anticipated recovery. In other words, the litigant could end up paying more on attorney’s fees than the recovery. Despite opinion to the contrary, the prevailing party is entitled to recovery of attorney’s fees. Attorney’s fees are only recoverable if provided by a contract or a statute. Only a very few statutes provide for the recovery of attorney’s fees.
Therefore, Magistrate’s Court is well suited for disputes where the monetary recovery is less than $7500. Typically, the time for a jury trial in Magistrate’s Court is substantially less that Circuit Court. Further, the court can provide the litigant with forms to facilitate pro se representation. Additionally, a good resource is a South Carolina judicial branch website. From the homepage, you can quick link to court forms and from the dropdown bar select Magistrate Court Forms. The forms typically needed to initiate a lawsuit are the Summons and Complaint.
Additionally, from that same website under the dropdown link for Trial Courts, you will find the Summary Court Judge’s Bench Book under Magistrate’s Court. The Bench Book is a quick reference guide for the procedural and substantive law on many Magistrate Court matters.
While we never suggest you not contact an attorney for advice or retain an attorney, sometimes is just not practical. If you are uncertain as to whether or not you should proceed with a claim in Magistrate’s Court pro se, with a lawyer or in Circuit Court, please contact our office for assistance. We will help you analyze the claim, and also point you in the right direction. We can also help you identify the appropriate causes of action under which you should sue. In short, Magistrate’s Court is a good venue to allow litigants to resolve their civil disputes if you proceed to represent yourself.