Lehigh Valley Legal Services: Tenants' Rights

Defending Yourself at A District Justice Hearing

What Is a "District Justice"?

A District Justice is a locally elected official who can decide civil lawsuits including landlord/tenant matters. The District Justice used to be called a Magistrate or Justice of the Peace.

Do I Need an Attorney?

No. The system can work without the parties having attorneys. The landlord may not have an attorney either.

Should I Go to The Hearing?

By all means, yes! Especially if you have a "defense" or "counterclaim" against your landlord. You should go even if you made an agreement with your landlord or your landlord said he was going to cancel the hearing. (He may not follow through like he promised!) If you cannot go on the scheduled date, call the District Justice's office and ask if it can be rescheduled.

What Is a "Defense"?

A defense is your reason why the landlord should not be allowed to evict you. You do not have to file any papers in order to be able to present your defense. Some common defenses are that the landlord did not give you enough notice to get out, or that the apartment had a lot of problems, or that the landlord's story is not true.

What Is a "Counterclaim"?

A counterclaim is when you have a claim for money against the landlord. An example is when a tenant paid for repairs or made improvements to the apartment.

To make a counterclaim, you must file papers before the hearing at the District Justice's office. The District Justice will give you a form to fill out. You should file a counterclaim as soon as you receive notice of the hearing.

Both the landlord's complaint and your counterclaim will be decided at the hearing.

What Happens at The Hearing?

The landlord will give his side first. He can testify and have witnesses, if he wants. Then the District Justice will give you an opportunity to question the landlord and his witnesses. (You are not required to ask them any questions.) Then you will get the opportunity to present your defense. You too can have witnesses if you want. The landlord then has his turn to ask questions of you and your witnesses. The District Justice can speak or ask questions at any time.

If the District Justice does not offer to let you speak after the landlord states his case, say politely but firmly: "Your Honor, I would like to present a defense" or "I would like to ask Mr. X a question."

May I Bring Documents?

Yes, you can bring documents that help prove your case. You must bring the document to the hearing; you are not allowed to refer to it if you don't have it (or a copy) with you. An example of an important document is a bill, estimate or receipt for a repair to the apartment.

Not all documents can be presented at a hearing. A written statement by a person (even if notarized) who does not come to the hearing to testify is not allowed. If someone has something important to say about your case, he or she must come to the hearing in person.

What If Someone I Want to Be a Witness Does Not Want to Come to The Hearing?

You have the right to get a "subpoena" from the District Justice. A subpoena requires a person to come to the hearing; it also requires the person's employer to let him or her out of work to come testify. A subpoena can also require the witness to bring documents needed to prove your case. An example might be to subpoena a furnace repairperson to come and testify what work she did and to bring the invoice for the repairs.

You should get the subpoenas you will need as soon as possible to be sure that the witnesses get them in time for the hearing. You must arrange for a responsible adult to "serve" or to hand the subpoena to the witness in order for the subpoena to be effective.

May I Object to Something a Witness Is Saying?

Yes. The most common objections are:

  1. "I object. That is not relevant." You can object to a statement that has nothing to do with the case. Example: The landlord testifies that your father was arrested fifteen years ago for drunk driving.

  2. "I object. That is hearsay." You can object if the witness states something she only heard from someone else. Example: A witness testifies that her neighbor told her that she saw you break a window. A witness can testify only to what he or she actually saw.

How Should I Prepare for My Case?

You should practice saying your side of the case. Make a written outline or checklist to use at the hearing. Keep to the point; don't ramble or the District Justice may cut you off.

Photos speak a thousand words. If you have a complaint about the condition of your apartment, take photos if you can. Be prepared to say when the photos were taken and by whom.

When Does the District Justice Decide the Case?

The District Justice may decide the case right in the courtroom after he has heard all the evidence. If not, he has three (3) days to decide and send you the decision in the mail.

What If I Don't Agree With the Decision?

You have a right to appeal. Appeals are filed at the local County Courthouse. However, you should consult with an attorney about appealing because it may be too difficult to follow the rules about the appeal on your own.

An appeal from a judgment of eviction must be filed within ten (10) days after the date of the judgment. If the landlord sued for possession and money, but was awarded only a money judgment the appeal deadline is still ten (10) days. If the landlord sued only for money, the appeal period in thirty (30) days.

What Happens If There Is No Appeal?

If the District Justice grants the landlord a "Judgment for Possession," you still have at least 21 days to move out. The landlord can request an "Order for Possession" from the District Justice on the 11th day following the date of judgment or any day after that.

A constable will serve you with the Order for Possession by handing it to you or posting it on your door. It will give you a final 10 days to move. On or after the 11th day following service of the Order for Possession, the constable or police can physically evict you if you haven't moved out. They can change the locks and put your stuff outside.

Also, if the District Justice grants the landlord a "money judgment," the landlord can go back to the District Justice after 30 days if he hasn't been paid, and request an "Order of Execution." This starts the process by which a tenant's belongings can be sold at a public sale in order to get the landlord his money.

If the District Justice granted the landlord judgments for both possession and money for future rent, you should consult a lawyer. The landlord is not entitled to both!

Can I Stay in The Apartment If I Appeal?

Yes, but only if, at the time you file the appeal, you deposit with the County Court a sum of money or a bond equal to the rent owed, or three months' rent, whichever is less. If you do not post the cash or bond, the appeal will not prevent your eviction.

You must also be able to deposit your rent with the Court in full and on time every month! If you don't, the landlord can go ahead with the eviction.

The law often changes. Each case is different.
This pamphlet is meant to give you general information and not to give you specific legal advice.