What is the Difference Between District Court and Circuit Court in Virginia?

There are two types of trial courts at the local level in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Specifically, there are general district courts, which are the lower courts and there are circuit courts, which are the higher trial courts.

In particular, there are two types of district courts in Virginia: the General District Courts and the Juvenile & Domestic Relations General District Courts.

General district courts have the exclusive jurisdiction to hear all civil claims of $4,500 or less. Civil cases including landlord tenant disputes, contract disputes, and personal injury actions are filed in the general district court. General district court judges hear traffic cases and protective orders, preside over trials of misdemeanor criminal cases, and preside over preliminary hearings involving felony criminal matters.

Juvenile & domestic relations courts hear juvenile traffic cases and juvenile criminal matters, preliminary hearings on felony where the parties are family or household members, preliminary hearings on felony matters where a child is the alleged victim, protective orders, custody and visitation issues, and matters of spousal support.

Circuit courts are trial courts of general jurisdiction whose judges hear a variety of matters everyday. Circuit courts have the authority to try a full range of criminal and civil cases. While civil cases are matters between two or more private parties, criminal cases involve the prosecuting Commonwealth’s Attorney and local police departments accusing a person of a crime and pursuing a conviction. The sacred constitutional right of a criminal defendant to a trial by jury does not exist in the lower courts and all jury trials are held in the circuit courts. There are 31 judicial circuits in Virginia and 120 separate circuit courts. Norfolk is home to the Fourth Judicial Circuit.

Both general district courts and circuit courts have concurrent jurisdiction over civil claims of more than $4,500 but less than $25,000. This means that suits of this nature may be heard by either general district court or circuit court judges. Where to file a suit is typically a decision made by experienced practicing attorneys. However, the circuit courts have exclusive jurisdiction to hear all matters where the claim is above $25,000.

Circuit courts also have exclusive jurisdiction to hear divorce cases, wills and estate cases, and controversies over real property. With regard to criminal matters, felony trials take place in circuit courts, in addition to misdemeanor appeals from parties who were unhappy with the decision of general district court judges. The circuit court also presides over appeals from the juvenile and domestic relations courts. For example, if a party is unhappy with a juvenile and domestic relations court judge’s decision regarding a custody or visitation case, they may appeal to the circuit court. These appeals are considered to be trials de novo, which means that the litigants have the opportunity to have a completely new trial and the decision of the lower court judge and the evidence previously submitted is not considered. Circuit court judges also hear juvenile cases where the child has been certified as an adult on serious felonies.

If you or your family member are going to court on a misdemeanor or felony criminal matter, you should contact an experienced Norfolk criminal defense attorney to assist you or your loved one.