The People’s Court
Justice of the Peace Courts are often termed “The People’s Court” because the rules are more relaxed and less restrictive than the District Courts and County Courts. Unless the Judge chooses otherwise, the Rules of Evidence are typically not followed. This is more conducive for people to represent themselves in Court without the need for attorneys and without the stress and worry of admitting evidence to the Court. This is not to say you cannot hire an attorney as you always have the right to be represented. Justice of the Peace Courts follow Part V of the Civil Rules of Procedure, RULES OF PRACTICE IN JUSTICE COURTS.
Type of Cases Are Heard by Justice of the Peace Courts?
Justice of the Peace Courts hear Class C misdemeanor criminal cases and some civil cases such as evictions, small claims, debt claims, repair and remedy cases (landlord/tenant issues), towed or booted vehicles, occupational licenses, and interruption of utilities. The JP Courts also handle various types of tickets and citation, as well as conducting weddings.
What Happens in Court?
The first step to any proceeding is filing the Petition and serving the other party. The Court has forms that can be completed by a person representing themselves, or you can hire an attorney to file your petition. The Defendant has an opportunity to file an Answer and a Counterclaim. Depending on whether an Answer is filed, the suit will either proceed to a pre-trial or trial, or a default hearing.
At a pre-trial, the Judge will hear from the parties and take the necessary steps to develop the facts of the case. The Judge may order the parties to a mediation or may set it for final trial. Either party may request a jury trial, but they must follow the proper procedure. Either party may file motions, such as requests for discovery or summary motions and request hearing dates. Every pleading, motion, hearing date, etc. must be served on the opposing party. Remember there are still procedures that must be followed in any suit, whether you are represented by an attorney or not.
If the case proceeds to a jury trial, then the Judge will call the case at the appointed time. If a party is not present, the Judge may postpone the trial or dismiss the suit. The parties will be asked about the evidence they intend to use in trial and either side will have an opportunity to review the evidence and voice any objections.
The next step is seating the jury which involves voir dire. Each party has the opportunity during this time to ask the potential jurors questions. This is not the time for developing the case or discussing facts about the case. This is a time to question potential jurors to find what their general biases are in an attempt to determine who may side with your facts. In JP Court, a jury will consist of 6 members.
Once a jury is seated and sworn in, the trial begins with the Opening Statements. The Petitioner will then present their case and call witnesses. The Defense presents their case last. Once both sides have presented their case and rested, each party is given an opportunity to have closing arguments. The jury is then led out to begin deliberations. When the jury has completed deliberations and made a decision, the Court is called back to order and the verdict read.
There are many resources available to assist those wishing to represent themselves in JP Courts. Judge Ralph Swearing in has a great power point presentation on an overview of the Justice of the Peace Court which can be found here. In addition, Texaslawhelp.org has a lot of information for those choosing to represent themselves in Court. In the end, you should always check with the Court Clerk for the Court you are in, as the Clerks will be your most helpful resource for that specific Court. Remember, they cannot give you any legal advice, but they can provide you information on the forms and the process.