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The Strange and Mysterious World of Local Courts

December 01, 2009

Throughout their law school careers, Penn Law students must complete 70 hours of pro bono service. While fulfilling this requirement, many students may encounter an unfamiliar and somewhat arcane system – the Philadelphia courts. Other students end up involved in a Philadelphia court case through a clinic, or through a summer job. This first encounter tends to be fraught with uncertainty, awkwardness, and the unpleasant feeling that you simply do not know what you are doing. Although these feelings are a natural result of lack of experience, with some simple background on the workings of local courts, sheer terror is avoidable.

Clinic instructors and pro bono supervisors provide great guidance on local court rules and procedures. But they cannot anticipate every question and situation. Sometimes, you just have to figure it out for yourself. To complicate matters further, Westlaw and Lexis are usually not very useful for local issues. Luckily, there are a couple of internet resources that are very helpful to anyone navigating our local courts. 
The Pennsylvania First Judicial District’s (FJD) website,, is a great place to start. The site provides a useful breakdown of the organization of Philadelphia’s courts. More importantly, it contains an exhaustive list of forms for a variety of pleadings and motions in civil, criminal and family court cases.   Need to request a continuance for your traffic court hearing? There’s a form for that. Need to move the court for a home investigation or drug screening in your child custody case? There’s a form for that too. Need to get court fees waived for your pro bono client? You get the idea. All of these forms are typically accompanied by a detailed instruction sheet for filing.
Additionally, the FJD website contains links to the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Local Rules, essential reading before you attempt to file something with the court or appear at a hearing. Finally, the FJD also publishes a variety of brochures and manuals on topics ranging from Small Claims Court to Protection From Abuse to Residential Mortgage Foreclosure. Although intended for lay persons, these publications provide a good “big picture” overview for a law student or lawyer in unfamiliar legal territory. 
Community Legal Services of Philadelphia (CLS) also provides a wealth of information on its website, CLS provides services in a variety of practice areas including housing, consumer law, and public benefits, and the CLS website provides a good background on the essential state and local law for each practice area. For instance, in its section on landlord-tenant disputes, CLS summarizes the key Pennsylvania cases on the implied warranty of habitability and explains Pennsylvania’s law related to security deposits. 
Finally, Biddle houses a collection of Pennsylvania and Philadelphia materials, including Pennsylvania Forms, the Pennsylvania Bulletin, Pennsylvania Cases and Digests, Pennsylvania Court Rules, and the Philadelphia Code. These resources and more are located on the North side of the 3rd Floor of Biddle.