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How Justice of the Peace courts work

By Jessica Priest
March 31, 2014 at 5:03 p.m.
Updated March 30, 2014 at 10:31 p.m.

Judge Robert Whitaker's courtroom in Victoria.

Erica Gonthier has been without her 1996 Toyota Corolla for about seven months.

The transmission for her only mode of transportation stopped working, so she paid one mechanic $2,000 and another $350. Both men botched the repair job, she said.

She complained to the Better Business Bureau and the attorney general's office, but neither helped recoup her lost money.

"How can we make it in this world?" the 55-year-old disabled woman asked. "It's like you're squeezing a turnip, and nothing is coming out of it."

Cases like Gonthier's, which have disputed amounts less than $10,000, are typically heard at the justice of the peace courts.

Here's everything you need to know about how you can file a claim there:

How do you file your claim?

Fill out a small claims petition, which can be found at the justice of the peace offices, for a $41 filing fee. Describe the nature of the dispute and write the defendant's name and contact information. A constable can serve the defendant for a fee of $84.

How do you prepare to file your claim? Should you hire an attorney?

The rules in justice of the peace courts are designed such that an average person can present his or her own case, but the plaintiff can hire an attorney if he or she wants to. The justices will read over the petition, give each person the opportunity to speak and ask follow-up questions. Either side can also opt to have a jury hear the case, which costs a fee of $22.

If you win your case, how is a ruling enforced?

A justice of the peace's ruling is also called a judgment, and it's up to the person, not the court, to enforce it. Request an abstract of judgment for a fee of $5. This document, which allows a lien to be placed on a person's property, is filed at the county clerk's office. Liens tie up the sale of a home or car until a debt is satisfied.

Justices and their clerks cannot give out legal advice, so they recommend you hire an attorney for additional help.

If you lose your case and feel as though it was an incorrect decision, can you appeal it? How?

File an appeal bond within 21 days. The case could then be heard in a county court-at-law.

What are a justice of the peace's qualifications?

Justices are elected. They must be at least 18 years old and live in the precinct they serve. Once they take office, they are required by the state to complete 80 hours of judicial training. They must complete 20 hours of judicial training annually.

Do justices have duties other than hearing cases?

A justice of the peace is always on call to order autopsies, advise someone of their legal rights within 24 to 48 hours after they are arrested and issue emergency protection orders in assault or family violence cases. He or she can also set bond with conditions for DWI offenders to fit their vehicles with ignition interlock devices. A justice can require someone suspected of having mental health problems to go to the hospital to be evaluated for 48 hours. Justices also hear truancy and eviction cases and can suspend someone's driver's license in a Department of Public Safety hearing.

About how many cases a year do justice of the peace courts hear?

Victoria County justice of the peace courts heard 206 small claims lawsuits in 2013.

How many justice of the peace courts are in the area?

Four in Victoria County, 16 total in the Crossroads - two each in DeWitt, Goliad, Refugio and Jackson counties and four each in Lavaca and Calhoun counties.

SOURCES: Justice of the Peace Precinct 3 Robert Whitaker, Justice of the Peace Precinct 2 Stuart Posey, Texas Office of Court Administration

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