by Jim Slaughter

Updated from "Magistrates: Backbone of the Judicial System" in The Business Weekly of the Greensboro News & Record

The only experience that some people have with the court system in North Carolina is before a Magistrate. As an officer of the district court, Magistrates have authority over certain civil and criminal matters. Many people also know that a Magistrate is the only civil official in the state who can perform marriages.

Less well known is the fact that the Magistrate's Court is the oldest court in North Carolina. Even in colonial days "Justices of the Peace" presided over the Magistrate's Court and had jurisdiction over petty criminal offenses and some civil matters. By 1794 the North Carolina General Assembly had limited the authority of the Magistrate's Court in civil matters to debts and demands not exceeding twenty pounds ("dollar" was not a commonly used term in North Carolina until the mid-nineteenth century). This limiting cap on the value of civil cases was raised to twenty-five pounds in 1802, to thirty pounds in 1803, and to $100 by 1860. According to Ante-Bellum North Carolina by Guion Griffis Johnson, a Justice of the Peace could hand down quite a few penalties. These included a fine of $1 for anyone violating the Sabbath, a fine of $20 for neglecting to notify the county that a stray farm animal had been found, and a forfeiture of double the amount lent by any creditor charging more than 6 percent interest on a debt.

Although Magistrate's Court was often held in the courthouse or town hall of a city, any building might be used in rural North Carolina. A Justice of the Peace in Surry County held court in his kitchen because his wife did not want the other floors in her home "begaumed with tobacco-juice" or scarred from the nails in the "litigants' home-made shoes."

The court system in North Carolina today is much more structured than in the early days of the Justices of the Peace. Since 1965 our state's court system has been divided into three divisions: the Appellate Division, the Superior Court Division, and the District Court Division. Justices of the Peace were replaced by "Magistrates" and placed within the District Court Division.

Magistrates today are appointed by the senior resident superior court judge to two-year terms with subsequent four-year terms. Magistrates are not required to be attorneys, but take classes to become well-versed in areas of civil, criminal, and juvenile law.

Civil trials before a Magistrate are limited by statute to those involving "small claims."  A small claim action is one in which

  1. the amount in controversy does not exceed $5,000 to $10,000 (it varies by county), and
  2. the principal relief requested is monetary, or the recovery of personal property, or the ejectment of a tenant.

A small claim action is begun by the filing of a "Complaint" with the Clerk of Superior Court in the county where the defendant lives. Upon receipt of the Complaint, the Clerk of Superior Court issues a Summons to the defendant stating the date, time, and place of trial. (The trial date must be within thirty days of the filing of the complaint.)

Trials in a small claims action are heard by the Magistrate without a jury. Although rules of evidence apply as in other courts, simplified trial procedures are followed. Attorneys are often not present. The Magistrate's ruling has the same effect as that of a district court judge and is placed in the records of the court. However, either party may appeal a Magistrate's ruling to district court for a new trial.

Magistrates also hear cases involving the eviction of tenants. Our state's General Assembly has aggressively enacted laws governing how a landlord regains possession of property. In fact, it is the public policy of North Carolina that tenants be evicted only in accordance with the statutory procedure of "summary ejectment." A landlord attempting to remove a tenant without the involvement of a Magistrate can be held liable for damages.

Once a tenant holds over and remains on premises without the permission of the landlord, a landlord may sue for summary ejectment. As in other small claims actions, the landlord drafts a small claims Complaint and asks that the Clerk of Superior Court issue a Summons. As part of the summary ejectment action, the landlord may claim past rent due as well as rent for the occupation of the premises since the end of the lease.

If a tenant defends the action, the Magistrate hears all of the evidence and renders a judgment. If this judgment is for the landlord, the tenant may appeal within so many days by posting a bond. Rent from the tenant continues to be due during the appeal. If no appeal is taken by the tenant within the timeframe, the county sheriff is instructed to remove the tenant's property and place the landlord in possession of the property. As in other trials before a Magistrate, either party can appeal the judgment to the District Court for a new trial.

 Articles are intended to provide general information and are not legal advice or a legal opinion. Specific questions should be directed to an attorney at Law Firm Carolinas or to another lawyer.

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