Thursday, January 6, 2011

Unnecessary limitations on Virginia’s General District Courts

Most residents of the Commonwealth of Virginia will have some experience with the General District Court system at some time while they reside here.  The GDC happens to be where almost all traffic and parking matters are adjudicated in a final manner.
For those practicing outside traffic and criminal law the GDC is where small civil cases are adjudicated.  For non landlord tenant matters the jurisdiction of the GDC is limit to claims of less than $15,000.00 pursuant to Va. Code § 16.1-77(1).  If your case exceeds the jurisdictional limit it must be filed in the Circuit Court where the procedures require payment of additional attorneys’ fees by an exponential factor, and almost a year of extra time to get to trial.

A GDC civil case can usually be concluded in 2-4 months, and even a heavily contested matter can usually be completed for $7,500 or less in attorneys’ fees.  There are certain limitations on the GDC case such as the automatic right of appeal, but even that imposes limitations on the losing party.

In short the GDC is faster and cheaper for civil litigants, and therefore a more efficient way to adjudicate claims.  The jurisdictional limit makes it difficult to adjudicate claims in the $15,000.00-$30,000.00 range in an efficient manner. 

Although I might personally advocate for a slightly higher jurisdictional limit two bills going before the General Assembly this session would raise the jurisdictional limit to $25,000.00.  The raise in the jurisdictional limit to $25,000.00 is being suggested by Sen. Don McEachin (D- Richmond) in bill SB774, and Del. Sal Iaquinto (R-Virginia Beach), in bill HB1590.

Reviewing a recent post on Virginia Lawyers Weekly it appears some of the support and criticism to this proposal is coming from personal injury and insurance defense attorneys. 

My problem with the jurisdictional limit is less with the tort system but more with low value contracts such as a contract a small business might have with their business and consumer customers.  These are claims that may not otherwise be pursued as the cost in the Circuit Court far exceeds the potential payout, and the protection of an attorneys' fees provision is often non-existent, weakly enforced, or requires full written expert witness reports, designations, and testimony. 

For cases in this narrow category of being the largest of smaller claims, the cost and time effective nature of the GDC makes it an ideal place to resolve these $15,000-$30,000 disputes.  Further even if an attorneys' fee provisions is not enforced, or weakly enforced in the G.D.C. the attorneys' fees expense to the successful party will be drastically reduced making it less of a hindrance.

In my opinion the GDC is Plaintiff friendly in one distinct manner: appeal rights.
A defendant that loses has a right to appeal for a whole new trial but must post a bond (usually) for the full judgment amount and pay some minor costs.  A Plaintiff that loses and wants to appeal (generally) need not post a bond, and the out of pocket costs for the appeal are about $100.00.  Given that interplay, it is easy to see who is more likely to take up the judicial system's time and resources with two trials instead of just one.

The negative affect on GDC caseload will not be in the number of additional cases , which will be marginal, but in the time spent on those cases.  A higher dollar value case justifies active motions, work, multiple witnesses including experts, presentation of legal issues in briefs, and longer trials.  The negative affects of such a shift will be worse felt in smaller jurisdictions with one or few judges that need to slot civil cases for 30 minutes to three hours rather than one-two days.

The increase in jurisdictional limit of the GDC is a recommendation of the Boyd-Graves conference.

Prediction: One of these bills passes and is signed into law, likely as a stand alone bill.  It will benefit local litigators, and even insurance defense attorneys (more tried cases means more attorneys’ fees.


  1. As someone who brings collection cases for small businesses, I think it is a welcome change. Moreover, I think it just reflects the reality of inflation and the declining value of the dollar. What would the $15,000 limit at the time it was enacted be worth today in inflation adjusted dollars?

  2. My general feeling is "it's about time." I think the increase is too modest. I have already started encouraging clients to wait until July to file in the GDC.

    To answer what may have been a rhetorical question: The limit was last increased from $10,000 to $15,000 in 1997.

    Using the calculator found at, $15,000 in 1997 dollars is worth about $20,500 in today's dollars.