Preparing Your Case and Yourself for District Court
The District Court in Maryland is a single statewide court with 34 court locations in 12 districts.
- The District Court is one of two trial courts (where most cases start) in Maryland. The other trial court is called "Circuit Court".
- Over 2 million cases are filed every year.
- The District Court is the court where civil (non-criminal) claims under $5,000 in money damages are heard (called Small Claims Court).
Small Claims Court - This is often a relatively fast way to have a case heard by a Judge. (There is no jury in Small Claims Court). The proceeding is informal. Many people handle their own cases without an attorney.
- Is Small Claims Court the same thing as District Court? No – small claims cases are part of the caseload handled by the District Court. The Court also handles large claims and other types of cases.
- When do I file a civil claim in District Court versus a Circuit Court? You file in District Court for claims up to $5,000. If the claim is between $5,000 and $30,000, you can file the case in either the District or Circuit Court. Claims for more than $30,000 must be filed in a Circuit Court. If you want a bench trial (or a trial by Judge) then you can file your claim in District Court or Circuit court. If you want a jury to decide your case, however, your claim must be filed in Circuit Court.
Read the Law: Md. Code, Courts and Judicial Proceedings § 4-402
Types of cases heard in District Court
The District Court hears both criminal and non-criminal (civil) cases.
The types of civil cases include money claims up to $30,000, domestic violence cases, landlord-tenant problems, motor vehicle and boating violations.
Do I need a Lawyer?
That will depend on the type of case, how comfortable you are representing yourself, and how much you have to lose. For a complete list of options, including limited scope representation, please see our Get Help page.
How much will it cost to have a case heard in District Court?
There are filing and service fees and there is the possibility of attorney fees. If you hire an attorney, you and the attorney will decide on the amount of the fees. Should I Represent Myself? If you file your claim in any court, you will need to pay a filing fee (except if you are the petitioner in a domestic violence case). If you ask the court to take some action later in the case, there may be a separate fee. If the sheriff or the court clerk helps you serve the court papers to the other side, there will be an additional fee. The fees in District Court are generally modest, ranging from $10 to $56. More details about the court fees from the District Court.
Alternatives to Court
Particularly in small claims cases, it makes sense to try to resolve a dispute before going through the expense and time required in taking a case to court. More on how to find alternatives to court.
If you go to Court
Once you have explored the alternatives, it may still be necessary to go to court. When you file in District Court (including small claims court and landlord-tenant court), the following will
- help you to represent yourself successfully, or
- help you decide if you need attorney help, and
- if you hire an attorney, it will help you to better understand the process and how you might assist your attorney and save on costs.
Visit the District Court Self-Help Website for additional information.
What will happen at the hearing?
The person who filed the lawsuit (the plaintiff) and the person who was sued (the defendant) are the parties to the lawsuit. Both are entitled to appear in court. There will be a judge but no jury in small claims cases. If you request a jury trial (and your case is eligible for a jury trial), the case will be transferred to Circuit Court. Both parties are allowed to speak and to present documents, drawings, photographs and other evidence as well as witnesses.
IMPORTANT TIP There are differences in the rules for how the hearing will be conducted in small claims cases (up to $5,000) and large claim cases (over $5,000 to $30,000). The rules are much more formal in large claim cases, and the advice or representation of an attorney is likely to be very helpful.
What About Collecting the Judgment?
If you win, the next step will be to collect the amount ordered by the Judge. You will need to collect the funds on your own. The court will not collect it for you, however, if you do not receive the amount due to you in 30 days (unless there was an agreement to pay in installments), you can go back to court. You can try to have the money taken out of the other person’s pay check or try to claim some of that person's personal property. For this part of the process, you will need to research the other person’s ability pay the amount ordered by the court.