Starting a civil matter
A civil matter starts when a person or organisation - called the plaintiff - files a complaint with the Magistrates’ Court. The person or organisation who the complaint is filed against is called the defendant.
The Magistrates’ Court can hear civil disputes up to the value of $100,000. Disputes can arise from debts, claims for damages, other monetary disputes or equitable relief. See the Magistrates' Court Act 1989 for information about the extent of the jurisdiction.
If the dispute is more than $100,000, the matter is heard in a higher court. See the County Court of Victoria website for more information.
The Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) may also be able to help resolve your dispute. For more information see the VCAT website.
If you have a fencing dispute, see the Dispute Settlement Centre of Victoria’s (DSCV) website for information on how to resolve the matter. You can also see the fencing disputes information guide.
Court can be a complex and costly process. You should seek legal advice before starting a civil matter. You can also speak to the other party to try and resolve the dispute. The steps below provide general information about the process. It does not cover all scenarios nor does it constitute legal advice.
STEP 1: Before you start
You should try to resolve your dispute before coming to court. The DSCV provides a dispute resolution service that may be able to help.
If you still want to bring a matter to court, you must agree to act honestly, cooperate and make a genuine attempt to resolve the dispute. To do this, you will need to fill in an overarching obligations certification - Form 4A.
You must also fill in a proper basis certification - Form 4B. This is a statement that your complaint is not frivolous (not having a purpose or value), vexatious (causing or tending to cause annoyance, frustration or worry) or is an abuse of process.
STEP 2: Outline your complaint
Fill in a complaint - Form 5A and outline your statement of claim. Your statement should be set out in numbered paragraphs and outline the facts of the complaint. If you are making a complaint against a party that does not live in Australia, contact your nearest Magistrates’ Court.
If you are filing a complaint for a fencing dispute, you should fill out the complaint (fencing dispute) - Form 5A.
STEP 3: File your complaint
File the original and two copies of the completed complaint form with the Magistrates’ Court closest to where the matter arose or the defendant’s address. The original form remains with the court, one copy is for your records and the other copy is to be served on the defendant.
You must also file a completed:
- overarching obligations certification - Form 4A
- proper basis certification - Form 4B
The forms can be filed in person or by post.
A filing fee is also payable. The fee is dependent on the amount of money you are seeking in your complaint. The fee can be claimed as costs in addition to the amount sought in the complaint.
If the complaint is accepted, a coversheet detailing the court case number and date of filing will be issued by the Magistrates’ Court.
The complaint is valid for service when the court case number and date of filling is written on all copies of the complaint - Form 5A. The complaint is valid for 12 months from the date of filing.
STEP 4: Serve complaint
There are legal rules about the way in which you must give documents to the defendant. This is called service. Information about service can be found on the service of court documents page.
To complete service, a copy of the complaint and two blank copies of a notice of defence – Form 8A must be served on the defendant.
The person who served the documents must complete an affidavit of service - Form 6A. This provides information to the court about how and when the documents were served.
The affidavit must be witnessed and sworn or affirmed in the presence of an authorised person. You may also need to file the affidavit to prove service. See the witnessing documents page for more information.
If documents are not served correctly, it may cause delays.
What happens next?
Once a complaint is served, the defendant has 21 days to file a notice of defence. The defendant must serve a copy of the notice of defence on you or your lawyer if they intend to defend the claim.
If the complaint is defended, the Magistrates’ Court will send a notice telling you when you need to go to court. It will also explain the type of hearing you will be attending. For example, a pre-hearing conference, mediation or arbitration. See the resolving a dispute page for more information.
If, after 21 days, the defendant does not file a defence, you may apply for a court order. See the default judgments page for more information.
- Try and resolve your dispute with the defendant or seek legal advice.
- Complete a:
File with the Magistrates’ Court:
- the original complaint – Form 5A
- the overarching obligations certification
- the proper basis certification
A filing fee is payable upon the lodgement of the forms
If the complaint is accepted you will receive a coversheet. Complete date of filing and court number on copies of the Form 5A Complaint
Serve on the defendant:
- a copy of the complaint - Form 5A
- two blank copies of notice of defence - Form 8A
- Complete an affidavit of service - Form 6A, sign in the presence of an authorised person and file with the Magistrates’ Court.
This is not a full list of legislation associated with this topic. See the Victorian Government's legislation website for more information.