How to Represent Yourself at the MDJ Hearing
If your landlord sues you and you receive notice of a Magisterial District Judge hearing, you should hire an attorney to assist you. If you cannot afford to hire an attorney, you may represent yourself. Here are some suggestions for representing yourself, but there is no guarantee that these suggestions will work in your case. You may need to know a lot more to present your case well.
- You are entitled to at least 5 days notice of a hearing before the Magisterial District Judge. A constable or sheriff’s deputy will serve a copy of the Landlord and Tenant Complaint upon you by handing it to you or to an adult who lives with you or by posting it on the premises. You should also receive a copy of the Complaint in the mail. Read the Complaint carefully. When is the hearing? Is your landlord seeking possession of the premises, money, or both? (If you received a Landlord and Tenant Complaint, then the landlord is definitely seeking possession and may also be asking for money as well. If you receive a Civil Complaint, then the landlord is just seeking money.) If your landlord is seeking possession, what are the reasons? End of lease term, breach of lease, or failure to pay rent? If your landlord is seeking money, note how much money and for what.
- Decide if the landlord owes you any money. If so, you may want go to the Magisterial District Judge’s office and file a Cross-Complaint against the landlord before the hearing. The Magisterial District Judge must schedule both Complaints for a hearing at the same time, on a date between 7 and 15 days after you file your Cross-Complaint. If your landlord owes you a lot of money, such as for personal injury, you should contact a private attorney before deciding to file a Cross-Complaint.
- Decide what parts of the Complaint you disagree with, and decide what evidence and witnesses can help your case. Line up your evidence, such as a copy of the lease, receipts, letters to and from your landlord, notices from the Health Department, and pictures of the premises. Note on the back of each picture the date the picture was taken and what the picture shows. If you forget to bring your evidence, the Magisterial District Judge cannot consider it.
- Line up your witnesses. Tell them to dress neatly for the hearing, and tell them to be polite at the Magisterial District Judge’s office. If you want the Magisterial District Judge to know about a Health Department inspection, ask the inspector to come and testify for you. You have the right to subpoena witnesses that won’t come voluntarily. You may obtain subpoenas from the Magisterial District Judge office, and you can serve them on the witnesses yourself, or you may hire a constable to do it. If you can’t get the inspector to come to the hearing, you should still introduce the inspection report if you have one.
- Make a list of the facts you want to testify to, and a list of questions you want to ask the landlord, his/her witnesses, and your witnesses. Organize what you want to say in an orderly and brief fashion.
- Make sure you and your witnesses arrive early at the hearing. If you are not present when the Magisterial District Judge calls the case, he may enter a judgment against you.
- Before the hearing, ask the landlord if he/she would like to settle the case. Suggest a proposal that will resolve the problem. If your landlord has a strong case against you for possession and money, you may want to agree to move out in less than 20 days as long as the landlord agrees that you owe no money. If you reach an agreement, write the terms down and both you and the landlord sign the paper. Make sure the Magisterial District Judge knows that an agreement has been signed and that he should not hold a hearing or issue a judgment. Do not leave the office until your landlord does.
- If the case cannot be settled, the Magisterial District Judge may try to shorten the hearing by trying to get you to say that you owe rent. If you disagree with the amount of rent the landlord is seeking, make sure that you say so.
- Throughout the hearing, try to remain calm and reasonable. Try not to show anger. The Magisterial District Judge will ask everyone who plans to testify to swear, or affirm, that they will tell the truth. The Magisterial District Judge will probably ask your landlord to testify first. Generally, you should not interrupt the testimony of the landlord or his/her witnesses even if they are lying. However, you may interrupt to object to hearsay testimony, such as testimony about something that someone else told your landlord. You may also interrupt to object to testimony and evidence about a new issue not mentioned in the complaint. If your landlord raises a new issue, such as a new reason for the eviction, you should object to the judge’s considering that reason.
- After the landlord testifies, you may ask him/her some questions, such as, “Did I notify you that the roof was leaking? Did you repair it?” You may also ask questions after each of the landlord’s witnesses testify. If you think the landlord or a witness will lie, it is usually best not to ask him/her questions.
- When it is your turn to testify, use your list to help you remember to tell the Magisterial District Judge all of the important facts. Answer any questions from your landlord or from the Magisterial District Judge honestly and politely. If the Magisterial District Judge thinks that you are not being honest on one small matter, he/she probably won’t believe any of your testimony. If you believe that you owe only part of the rent, state how much you think you owe for each month and explain why.
- If you have witnesses, tell the Magisterial District Judge that you want them to testify. You will have to ask them questions. Again, use your list so you will not forget anything.
- The Magisterial District Judge will issue a written decision called a “Notice of Judgment” which will state if judgment was entered for you or for the landlord, and for how much money. It will also state if possession was granted to the landlord. It may state that possession will be granted to the landlord only if you fail to pay the money judgment. If you do not receive the “Notice of Judgment” in the mail in a few days, call the Magisterial District Judge’s office to find out if a judgment was entered against you. You have only ten calendar days from the date of judgment to appeal the judgment.
- If the Magisterial District Judge grants possession to the landlord based solely on failure to pay rent, you have the right to Pay and Stay by paying the landlord or constable the rent owed and the court costs before you are evicted. Make sure you get a signed receipt from the constable. Once the constable has locked you out, you cannot get back into possession by paying the amount you owe.