General District Court and Circuit Court in Virginia
This article addresses the differences between the general district courts and the circuit courts in Virginia. Since I only practice in civil litigation, I will only discuss lawsuits involving a dispute over monetary damages.
It is important to note that the courts in each of Virginia’s counties or cities usually have a completely unique atmosphere and approach. Typically, the courts even have their own filing procedural rules or show favoritism towards a specific practice. However, so that there is uniformity in the Commonwealth, the majority of the rules governing our courts are contained in either the Code of Virginia or the Virginia Supreme Court Rules.
Brief note on Small Claims Court: I will not discuss small claims courts in Virginia since attorneys are not allowed to practice there. For reference, the small claims courts are able to try cases involving claims not exceeding $4,500.
Monetary Jurisdiction of the Virginia trial courts.
General district courts in Virginia have jurisdiction over lawsuits in which the plaintiff is seeking an award of $25,000 or less.* The award may be in excess of $25,000 where attorney’s fees are awarded. Filing fees in a general district court are usually much lower than in a circuit court. General district courts have exclusive jurisdiction over cases over monetary claims for $3,000 or less. In the circuit courts, the plaintiff can seek monetary claims in the millions of dollars if necessary and proper.
Proceeding to Trial
One of the main advantages for plaintiffs in the general district courts is the relative speed in which cases are tried. Typically, in the majority of jurisdictions and civil cases tried in general district courts, there is simply one return hearing date (to cover preliminary matters and set a trial date) and one trial date. General district court trials are relatively brief. The general district courts are intended to hear a high volume of cases. Therefore, the judges do not appreciate litigants who waste their time. As an example, the longest civil trials in most general district courts last a total of four hours; each side is allotted two hours to present evidence. If you start going over that time, the judge is likely to tell you to speed it up.
While the docket in the circuit courts moves much quicker than the courts in other states, it is still slower than the general district court. The speed of the docket depends largely on whichever of Virginia’s thirty-one circuit courts you are litigating in. There are some dockets which are slower because of the volume of litigation or a shortage in staff.
Pleading and Discovery in both Circuit Court and General District Court
Another huge difference between the general district courts and the circuit courts is amount of discovery allowed or pleadings required. In the general district courts, the scope of discovery is typically very limited. In addition, the parties may even choose to forego the more formal pleading process. Motions practice is not as frequent as in the circuit courts. Typically, on average, this leads to lower attorney’s fees and costs for litigants in the general district courts.
The time necessary to litigate a case in the circuit courts varies greatly from case to case. Indeed, this is a large reason why so many attorneys charge on an hourly basis for civil litigation. While I always try to be cost-conscious, the cost of litigation depends a great deal on the willingness of the opposing party to pump money into a case. In my experience, judges often prefer that cases proceed to trial and that everyone should be entitled to their “day in court.”
Automatic Right to an Appeal
In Virginia, there is an automatic right to an appeal from the general district courts to the circuit courts. When a litigant is unhappy with the outcome of a case, they may appeal to the circuit courts and have their case heard de novo (from the beginning). What this means is that both parties will have to try their case all over. In addition, as they are now in a circuit court, the parties may begin with discovery requests which were previously unavailable.
From the circuit courts, the next court to appeal to in civil monetary cases would be the Virginia Supreme Court. However, appeals to the Virginia Supreme Court for most civil litigants are not by right; the Virginia Supreme Court must first determine that your case is worthy of their time. Because of this, there are questions regarding civil law matters which the Virginia Supreme Court has never issued a ruling on.
This article only scratches the surface regarding the difference between the two courts in Virginia. If you have questions about your legal rights, contact my office today.
*Exception: General district courts may hear unlawful detainer cases in excess of $25,000 for commercial real estate.
Civil Litigation | Attorney | General District Court | Circuit Court | Ryan C. Young