Summary Review of Court Systems -
Structure of Civil Courts
Each city and county in Virginia has its own court system. Each court system includes three separate courts – a general district court, a juvenile and domestic relations district court, and a circuit court. As the name suggests, juvenile and domestic relations district courts hear only domestic matters, such as civil disputes concerning child custody and support and criminal matters involving children and family members. See Va. Code Ann. § 16.1-241. All other matters (civil and criminal), are heard in the general district and circuit courts.
Virginia has two appellate courts – the Court of Appeals of Virginia (“Court of Appeals”) and the Supreme Court of Virginia (“Supreme Court”). The Court of Appeals hears first-level appeals of criminal and domestic relations matters as well as agency decisions. Decisions by the Court of Appeals may be appealed to the Supreme Court. All other civil cases are appealed directly to the Supreme Court. However, appeals are discretionary in Virginia. A party seeking appellate review must petition for appeal. Only when a petition is granted will an appellate court fully review the case.
Basis of Jurisdiction
For civil matters, the jurisdiction of general district and circuit courts is based primarily on the amount in controversy. General district courts have exclusive original jurisdiction over all claims for $4,500 or less and have concurrent jurisdiction with the circuit courts over claims for more than $4,500 and less than or equal to $25,000. Code § 16.1-77(1). The circuit courts have exclusive jurisdiction over claims for more than $25,000. Code § 17.1-513.
There are a few narrow exceptions to the aforementioned rule. For example, general district courts have jurisdiction over all actions for unlawful detainer (eviction), regardless of the amount claimed for back rent and/or damages. Code § 16.1-77(3). Additionally, claims for attorneys’ fees and interest are not included when determining whether the amount in controversy falls within the general district court’s jurisdiction. Code § 16.1-77(1).
Cases in general district courts are heard by judges only. There are no jury trials. General district court dockets are typically high-volume and consist primarily of collection and eviction matters. The discovery process in general district court is limited to sending subpoenas to adverse parties or non-parties; and cases are tried quickly, often within six months of filing. Accordingly, general district courts are popular venues for litigants who wish to resolve small to moderate disputes efficiently.
It is important to note that litigants may appeal any judgment entered by a general district court to the circuit court of the same jurisdiction as a matter of right, and any such appeal is heard de novo by the circuit court. Code § 16.1-106. In other words, any party who is displeased with the results of a general district court case may retry the case in circuit court.
Circuit court cases are tried to a judge or jury. Circuit courts are the primary venue for larger-value civil disputes in Virginia.
Virginia has not established specialized commercial courts.
The Code of Virginia authorizes both general district and circuit courts to refer civil cases to mediation and authorizes circuit courts to refer cases to a judicial settlement conference. With respect to mediations, a court may, on its own motion or the motion of a party, order the parties to attend an orientation session with a court-approved mediator, free of charge. Code § 8.01-576.5. The parties are expected to discuss the prospect of mediation at the orientation session, but are then free to choose whether to pursue mediation further. Id.
In practice, this court-ordered mediation process is rarely used. General district courts in busy jurisdictions often have mediators on staff, who attend high-volume dockets and offer their services to interested parties. In circuit court cases, parties typically pursue mediation on their own and use private mediators.
In contrast, the judicial settlement program is frequently used in circuit court cases. The settlement conferences are conducted by retired judges and follow the same general format as a private mediation or federal settlement conference. Parties are typically required, for example, to provide a confidential pre-conference brief to the judge in advance of the conference. Like the mediation process, any party may move the court to refer their case to a judicial settlement conference or the court may refer a case on its own initiative. Code § 17.1-105. Courts in rural jurisdictions often refer cases to judicial settlement as a matter of course, in an effort to conserve their own resources and limit the number of jury trials.
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