Civil law is the body of law dealing with the rights between private citizens. These include legal disputes between individuals and businesses. However, a person or business can be the plaintiff in a lawsuit against a government entity, that is still civil in nature.
Commonly, civil suits involve disputes related to breach of contract, debt collection, personal injuries, property damage, divorce, evictions, etc. These areas of Civil law each have their own Rules of Court.
Besides different kinds of civil suits, there are also different levels of civil suits. For example, a claim over $10K must be filed in Superior Court. A claim of $10,000 or less can be filed in Justice Court. A claim of $3,500 or less can be file in Small Claims Court. In Small Claims, there are special adaptations of the laws that make these smaller cases simpler and faster than other civil.
Also in civil cases, the defendant may file a Countersuit. This is when the defendant in his Answer, also files a complaint alleging that the plaintiff is liable to him for specific act, debts, etc. If a counter claim is properly filed by the defendant and served upon the plaintiff, the plaintiff must then also files an Answer to the counter claim. Thereafter, the court proceeds with both lawsuits at the same time.
Steps in Bringing a Civil Lawsuit
- The plaintiff files a document, called the complaint, with the clerk of the court, which states the reasons why the plaintiff is suing the defendant and what action the plaintiff wants the court to take.
- Some court rules require the plaintiff to include in the complaint, a statement of jurisdiction, either where the defendant was served or where the offense occurred, and that a letter or demand was made to the defendant (such as demanding payment of $X, or completing specific services, etc.).
- There is a fee for filing each complaint. The amount of the fee varies depending on the type of case, which court it is filed in, or the type of other pleading that is filed (see Court Filing Fees, elsewhere). After the fee is paid by the plaintiff, the court clerk then issues a "summons" requiring the defendant to respond (called an answer). A copy of the complaint and a summons are delivered to (served on) the defendant. To be binding on the defendant this "service," must be served exactly as directed in the law. Typically, service is done either by a Sheriff Deputy or by "process servers" who are listed with the Superior Court.
- After legal service, the defendant has a limited time (usually 20 days) to file a written answer back to the court and send a copy to the plaintiff. The answer is to strictly conform to the legal format, which is to either admit or deny each individual accusation found in the complaint. Generally, if a particular allegation is not denied in this manner, under the law it is deemed admitted and is not at issue at trial (the plaintiff wins). One of the biggest mistakes that do-it-yourself defendants make, is to categorically deny the claim, such as "I don't owe them anything," or "they can't prove it." This is not a legally adequate denial because it is too general. Legally, by answering that way and not denying each separate part of the complaint‘s claims, the defendant may have just admitted the entire complaint (the Plaintiff wins).
- If properly answered in the legal time frame, the plaintiff and defendant are required to exchange their own information with each other over the next few weeks. This is called "discovery." No secrets are permitted. If one party keeps something back, saving it for trial, the court cannot allow that evidence to be used in the trial.
- If the case cannot be settled between the parties during the disclosure period, then the court will usually set "pretrial conferences" and / or "arbitration meetings," and order the parties to appear. Here, they inform the judge or arbitrator of any progress toward settlement and list any impediments to settlement. The benefit here is that some issues can usually be settled, and the trial then proceeds only on the unsettled issues, saving legal preparation time and court time. Although statistics vary, most cases are completely settled in this process without going to the trial stage.
- For the issues or cases that are not settled, most are tried before a judge rather than a jury. As in prior settings, there are Rules of Court that often restrict how evidence is used and what can be admitted. The party that knows the rules does have some advantage, so it is wise to examine the rules early in the process. Frankly, this is why many parties hire attorneys (because they know the rules). In court, each party is expected to know the rules and the judge is required to follow and enforce them. The judge knows that failure to follow the rules is grounds for an appeal, so expect that the judge will in fact follow and enforce them.
- For cases that proceed to a Trial, the judge makes a decision or the jury gives its verdict, based on the testimony and other evidence presented during trial. Only evidence admitted at trial should be considered, so get all of your evidence prepared and disclosed.
- In many civil cases, such as contracts, the winner usually asks the court to also award their legal costs. This includes attorney fees, if any. As you can see, the longer these cases drag on, the higher the stakes become; a simple case of a few hundred dollars in the beginning, when attorneys spend weeks and months working on the case, could result in an order to pay not only the claim, but hundreds or thousands of dollars more in legal fees.
- Most cases (but not all) may be appealed to the next higher level, but there are strict rules about time, both to file and to "perfect" the appeal (getting a transcript and writing to the legal reasoning or mistake). Also, there is often a requirement for the appellee to pay additional fees and/or bonds to appeal. The appeal must point out specific errors from the previous case that you want the appeals judge to watch for and rule on. These appeals are usually examinations of the trial record (recording or transcript). That means there is no retrial of the matter; the appeals court simply reviews the record and makes a ruling on your argument from the transcripts.