Summary Review of Court Systems -
Structure of Civil Courts
Vermont’s court of general jurisdiction is the Superior Court, with each county having its own court. The Superior Court is made up of five separate divisions: Civil, Criminal, Family, Probate, and Environmental. 4 V.S.A. § 30.
Civil matters such as breach of contract, business disputes, eviction, foreclosure, personal injury, land disputes, medical malpractice, product liability, and other torts are heard within the Civil Division. State consumer protection, civil rights, and some environmental actions are also filed in the Civil Division. This Division includes a Small Claims Court, designed for pro se litigants, with a jurisdictional maximum of $5000. Appeals from the Probate Division are also heard in the Civil Division.
The Probate Division is responsible for adoptions, correction and establishment of birth, death, and marriage records, emancipation, guardianships, permitting non-resident clergy to perform marriage, probate of estates, trusts, and wills. 4 V.S.A. § 35.
The Environmental Division is located in Burlington, and has state-wide jurisdiction to hear appeals and enforcement actions relating to environmental law, including appeals from municipal zoning boards and planning commissions, from Act 250 decisions, and from the Agency of Natural Resources and Natural Resources Board. It also hears requests to enforce administrative orders issued by municipalities and from the latter two bodies. 4 V.S.A. § 34.
The Criminal Division hears felonies and misdemeanors, prosecutions of violations of municipal bylaws and ordinances, and certain other “civil” actions of a quasi-criminal or punitive nature (see 4 V.S.A. § 32(c)).
The Family Division has jurisdiction over desertion and support proceedings, annulment, divorce, and dissolution, parent and child proceedings, child custody matters, abuse and exploitation matters, and related matters. 4 V.S.A. § 33.
Vermont’s Judicial Bureau has statewide jurisdiction over civil violations, such as civil violations of motor vehicle statutes, municipal ordinances, fishing, hunting, and trapping, burning and waste disposal, environmental and lead abatement, and noncriminal marijuana. 4 V.S.A. § 1102.
The Vermont Supreme Court has jurisdiction over all appeals from the Superior Court, and also of some agency and board determinations and orders. 4 VSA § 2(a). It also has concurrent direct jurisdiction in certiorari, mandamus, prohibition, and quo warranto. § 2(b). There is no intermediary appellate court in Vermont.
Basis of Jurisdiction
Since 2010, Vermont has had a unified court system; consequently, litigated matters, and appeals from administrative decisions and orders, fall within one of its Divisions, as discussed above.
The Civil Division has jurisdiction over civil disputes, regardless of the amount in controversy, other than those explicitly within another division’s jurisdiction. 4 V.S.A. § 31. For those matters where the amount in controversy is less than $5000, a Small Claims Court exists within the Civil Division.
As a general matter, venue for actions in the Superior Court is in the unit (county) where one of the parties resides; failure to properly venue the action allows for a motion to dismiss. 12 V.S.A. § 402. . If none reside within Vermont, the action may be brought in any unit. Actions concerning real estate are to be brought in the unit in which the lands (or some part) lie. Id.
There are no formal “commercial courts” in Vermont.
Most civil cases in Vermont are subject to mandatory mediation; the exceptions are small claims matters, foreclosure and eviction, actions to renew judgment, proceedings for a writ of habeas corpus or post-conviction relief, certain appeals, and actions where the parties certify in detail prior attempts to mediate. A stipulation for mediation must be filed within 30 days of the filing of the last Answer; should they fail to do so, the court takes control. In the Stipulation, the parties must designate the specific mediator; any agreement regarding payment of mediator fees; and a deadline for completion of the mediation. All parties must participate, and if the parties agree, nonparties who may be affected by the outcome or whose presence is necessary for resolution may be invited to the mediation. VT RCP Rule 16.3.
In medical malpractice cases, a prospective plaintiff may serve a request for pre-suit mediation (12 V.S.A. § 7011, et seq., In addition, voluntary arbitration is available in medical malpractice cases provided all parties agree prior to the commencement of trial. 12 V.S.A. § 7001, et seq.
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