The magistrate court in many instances functions as a Small Claims Court. In order for this court to have jurisdiction, your claim cannot exceed $7,500, except in disputes between landlords and tenants.
Employees of the magistrate court will help you file your claim in writing and will explain to you how your case will proceed through trial. You are not required to hire an attorney unless you so desire.
Filing fees are determined by the county in which the claim is filed. Other fees may also be added for services such as delivering a copy of the complaint to the defendant or summoning a witness to trial plus mileage. Should the court decide in your favor on your claim, these fees may be added to the judgment you receive. You may be relieved from paying these fees if the magistrate determines that you are financially unable to do so.
Once your written complaint is filed, the magistrate will issue a summons requiring the defendant to file an answer with the court within 30 days after he receives your complaint. Both the summons and complaint are then served upon or delivered to the defendant. Should the defendant fail to answer your complaint within the 30 days required, you may be given a judgment by reason of default. When your damages cannot be measured with certainty, you may be required to appear in court and provide testimony and evidence to support your claim.
If the defendant answers your complaint within the 30 day period and denies your claim, a trial will be scheduled. If either party wants a jury trial, it must be requested in writing at least five working days prior to the date set for trial.
The burden of proving your claim lies with you. You must be prepared to present your evidence and any witnesses you need to support your claim. Do not let this scare you. The trial will be rather informal. While the magistrate cannot take sides, he will not permit anyone to take unfair advantage of you during the trial.
If you win your case, you will be given a judgment. Let me caution you that even if the court decides in you favor, you may have difficulty in actually collecting money from the other person. This is because the decision or judgment of any court to award money to a winning party must be enforced by court order to seize the losing party's property and to sell such property at a public auction. The money received by such a sale of property is then given to the person who won in court. The big problem is that the losing party may not own any property or his property may have prior claims ahead of yours or it may be exempt by law from seizure and sale. You should find these things out before you file your small claim; otherwise, you may find you have wasted your time and money.
A losing party has the right to appeal the decision rendered in the magistrate's court to the circuit court. When this is done, the circuit court looks at the record in the case and determines whether or not the magistrate made any mistakes in his rulings and whether or not the judgment is supported by the evidence.
The circuit court does not take testimony or conduct another trial. Be sure to ask the court personnel about your right to appeal.
This information was prepared to give you some general information on the law. It is not intended as legal advice about any particular problem. If you have questions about the law you should consult a lawyer. If you do not know a lawyer, you can call the South Carolina Bar Lawyer Referral Service weekdays between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. The number is 799-7100 in Richland or Lexington Counties, and 1-800-868-2284 from other parts of the state.