A civil case is a lawsuit brought to enforce, remedy, or protect a person’s private rights. It is non-
criminal. It may include a personal injury action, divorce case, probate of an estate, or several types of
lawsuits where one party seeks to recover money damages for a loss they have suffered. It is one aspect
of how a civilized society resolves its disputes in a fair and non-violent manner.
How does it start?
One party files a complaint with the appropriate court and pays a filing fee. The complaint is a legal
document which makes the factual and legal allegations of the party’s claims. The complaint is then sent
to a sheriff who delivers the complaint and a summons to the defending party. The defending party
usually has 20 days to file and serve his answer. An answer is the defending party’s official response to
the allegations raised. In some cases, the defending party may file a counterclaim. A counterclaim is a
claim presented by a defendant in opposition to or reduction from the claim of the complaining party.
What is a motion?
A motion is a written application to the court during a case for the purpose of obtaining a ruling or order
that may benefit a party. Motions are a normal part of a lawsuit. Favorable rulings on motions can be
very helpful to the progression of one’s case.
What is discovery?
Discovery is a number of pre-trial devices that can be used by a party to obtain facts and information
from the other party to assist the requesting party in preparation for trial. These devices may include
interrogatories (a written set of questions to be answered truthfully in writing), requests for production
of documents ( a written request to provide a copy of documents in the other party’s control) and a
deposition (where an opposing lawyer asks a party or witness questions under oath before a
stenographer in a law office or stenographer’s office).
What is a pre-trial conference?
A pre-trial conference is a court event scheduled by the court prior to trial. It is used to narrow the
issues to be tried, to secure stipulations as to evidence and to schedule the trial date and other
deadlines leading up to it. Settlement is often discussed at pre-trial conference. In some cases, only the
lawyers will need to come to court. In many other cases, the parties will have to be present also. Pre-
trial conferences are usually scheduled at or near the completion of discovery.
What happens at trial?
Trial is the culmination of the case. Witnesses testify in response to questions posed by the lawyers and
a judge or a jury will decide what is true and how the law should be applied to come to a conclusion. The
court then enters a judgment.
What is a settlement?
Settlement is an agreement reached by the parties, usually before trial, which fully and finally resolves
the dispute. Settlement is often desirable since it may save a party time and money. It also avoids
uncertainty. “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”
What is an appeal?
An appeal is a request for a higher court to review a lower court’s ruling for errors. It can happen after
a trial, normally by a losing party.
How long will all this take?
Cases proceed along different timetables. A divorce may last approximately 14 months. A district court
case may last 18 months. A superior court case can take approximately 2-3 years. Many different factors
affect the duration of a case. There are a few tools a lawyer can use to try to make the case duration
shorter. One is alternative dispute resolution. This is where a mediator or arbitrator helps the parties
come to a conclusion without having to go through a trial.
How much will it cost?
Cost is difficult to predict precisely since it is unknown how the opposing party may respond and
how the case will proceed. A lawyer can only give you a reasonable estimate. Alternative dispute
resolution and reasonableness are two major ways to keep costs down. Remember that litigation
action to “prove a point” or the purpose of which is vengeance or vindictiveness is a bad thing.
Satisfaction will elude you and you will spend more money than you should.
What does a lawyer do?
The U.S. Department of Labor puts it this way: “The legal system affects nearly every aspect of our
society, from buying a home to crossing the street. Lawyers form the backbone of this vital system,
linking it to society in numerous ways. For that reason, they hold positions of great responsibility and
are obligated to adhere to a strict code of ethics. Lawyers, also called attorneys, act as both advocates
and advisors in our society. As advocates, they represent one of the parties in criminal and civil trials by
presenting evidence and arguing in court to support their client. As advisors, lawyers counsel their
clients concerning their legal rights and obligations and suggest particular courses of action in business
and personal matters. Whether acting as an advocate or an advisor, all attorneys research the intent of
laws and judicial decisions and apply the law to the specific circumstances faced by their client.”