The District Courts - The Lowest Level of Court in VA and Where Your Case Normally Begins
There are two types of district courts in Virginia: the General District Courts (GDC), and the Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Courts (JDR). In these courts, all cases are conducted by a judge, with no jury. They are “not courts of record,” which means there is no one in the courtroom writing down or keeping a record of what is said.
What Happens in District Court Stays in District Court - The De Novo Appeal
Because there is no record of the proceedings that take place in these courts, you get the benefit of a de novo appeal. This type of appeal is different than what you see on TV. A de novo appeal means that you can start over. If the judge rules against you, or if you want change the outcome in some way, you can note your appeal and the case will start fresh in Circuit Court.
General District Court (GDC)
The General District Courts: Have jurisdiction over traffic charges, criminal misdemeanors, and civil suits involving amounts of money up to $15,000. General District Courts also hold preliminary hearings in felony cases. Preliminary hearings are not trials; they are a hurdle the prosecutor has to overcome in order to get a trial on a felony. The best way to think of them is probable cause hearings. The prosecutor has to present enough evidence to reach the level of probable cause (which is the same amount of evidence they have to have to charge you with a criminal offense, a fairly low evidentiary standard). If the evidence is sufficient, the case will be certified to (sent to) Circuit Court, where it will be scheduled for a trial.
Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Courts (JDR)
The Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Courts (JDR): These courts handle criminal and traffic violations committed by juveniles, as well as criminal cases where the victim is a minor. JDR Courts also handle criminal charges with a family relations component, such as domestic assault and battery, as well as family law matters such as custody, child support, and protective orders against a family or household member.
In Virginia, a juvenile is any person under age 18. VA Code Section VA Code Section 16.1-228. One distinct difference between GDC and JDR is that while GDC court documents are public record and anyone can access them, proceedings and documents in Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Courts are confidential. Only a party to the case or their lawyer can get access to records of cases in JDR, with a few exceptions.
The underlying principle of all JDR Court Proceedings:
“It is the intention of this law that in all proceedings the welfare of the child and the family, the safety of the community and the protection of the rights of victims are the paramount concerns of the Commonwealth and to the end that these purposes may be attained, the judge shall possess all necessary and incidental powers and authority, whether legal or equitable in their nature.” VA Code Section 16.1-227.
The Circuit Courts - The Highest Level of Trial Court in Virginia
These are the highest of Virginia's trial courts, and the only Courts in Virginia that hold jury trials. These Courts have jurisdiction to hear cases involving most civil law and equity claims, including divorce, custody, child support, as well as all felonies, and appeals from the GDC and JDR District Courts.
It is also important to note that if you have a custody/visitation/spousal support/child support case pending in JDR and file for divorce in Circuit Court, the lower court case can be transferred and attached to the Circuit Court divorce case.