The civil system and the criminal system are two distinct facets of the U.S. legal system, each with its own procedures, rules, and regulations. At a fundamental level, the difference between the two systems lies in their purposes. The civil system primarily handles disputes between individuals, organizations, or both, with remedies often involving monetary compensation.
Conversely, the criminal system addresses behavior that is considered threatening, harmful, or otherwise endangering to the property, health, safety, and moral welfare of society.
Legal Representation Rules
In both systems, individuals have the right to an attorney. However, the extent of that right differs. In criminal cases, where a defendant’s liberty may be at stake, the right to an attorney is constitutionally guaranteed. If the defendant cannot afford one, the court will appoint a public defender. In civil cases, while you have the right to an attorney, the court does not provide one if you cannot afford it.
Different Stages of Civil Litigation
Civil litigation involves multiple stages, including consultation, pleading, discovery, pre-trial, trial, settlement, and appeal. The discovery stage in civil litigation is particularly important. Discovery allows both parties to obtain evidence from the other party through depositions, interrogatories, requests for admissions, and requests for documents.
The gathered evidence can substantially influence the progression of the case, the strategies adopted by each party, and the final outcome.
Let’s dive into each of the stages of civil litigation.
Before litigation begins, the plaintiff usually consults with an attorney to discuss the issue, identify potential legal claims, and assess their strength. For instance, if you slip and fall in a supermarket and break your leg, you might consult an attorney to see if you have a viable personal injury claim against the store.
The pleading stage begins when the plaintiff files a complaint in court, which outlines the facts of the case, the legal claims, and the relief sought. The defendant is then served with the complaint and is required to respond within a specified time, typically with an answer that addresses each of the plaintiff’s allegations.
For example, in a personal injury case, the complaint would describe the accident, identify the parties involved, and explain why the defendant is responsible for the injury.
This stage is where both parties exchange information relevant to the lawsuit. Tools used in this phase include depositions (interviews under oath), interrogatories (written questions that must be answered under oath), and requests for documents. In a car accident case, for instance, during discovery, you might request the other driver’s phone records to prove they were texting while driving.
During the pre-trial stage, parties may file motions to resolve certain issues before trial. These might include a motion for summary judgment or motions to exclude certain evidence from the trial. Parties also discuss settlement possibilities at this stage.
If the case doesn’t settle and no pre-trial motion has resolved the lawsuit, the case proceeds to trial. Both sides present their arguments and evidence, and a judge or jury makes a decision based on that information.
In a breach of contract case, you’d present:
- Evidence showing the existence of the contract;
- Your performance under the contract;
- The other party’s failure to perform; and
- The damages you suffered as a result.
A settlement can occur at any time during the litigation process. It is an agreement between both parties to resolve the case without going to (or finishing) a trial. Many cases are resolved through settlement rather than trial. For example, two businesses in a dispute over a contract might decide to settle to avoid the expense and uncertainty of a trial.
If a party is dissatisfied with the outcome of the trial, they may be able to appeal the decision to a higher court. The appellate court will review the trial court proceedings to determine whether legal errors occurred that affected the case’s outcome. For example, if a party believes the judge misinterpreted the law or improperly admitted evidence, that party might decide to appeal.
What Else Do I Need to Know About Procedure in Civil Cases?
While the aforementioned stages are standard in civil litigation, the procedure can vary depending on the specifics of the case, the jurisdiction, and the court. For instance, some cases may undergo alternative dispute resolution processes, such as mediation or arbitration, aiming to resolve the issue outside of court.
Arbitration and Mediation
Arbitration and mediation are forms of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) that provide a means to resolve disputes outside of the traditional court system.
Arbitration is a process in which a neutral third party, known as an arbitrator, makes a decision about a dispute after receiving evidence and hearing arguments. The arbitrator’s decision can be binding (the parties must abide by the decision, and it can be enforced as a court judgment) or non-binding (the parties can choose to ignore the decision and take the dispute to court).
For example, let’s consider two companies that have a disagreement over the terms of a contract. Rather than going to court, which could be expensive and time-consuming, they agree to arbitration. They present their arguments and evidence to the arbitrator, who then makes a binding decision that resolves the dispute.
Conversely, mediation involves a neutral third party (mediator) who helps the disputing parties reach a mutually acceptable resolution. The mediator does not make a decision but rather facilitates conversation and helps guide the parties toward an agreement.
Let’s take a divorce case as an example. A couple could choose mediation to work out the terms of their divorce, such as property division and child custody. The mediator would help them communicate and propose solutions, aiming for a settlement that both parties find acceptable. This approach is often less adversarial and can preserve relationships better than a court trial.
Motion for Summary Judgment
In some instances, a case may be dismissed before reaching trial if a judge grants a motion for summary judgment, meaning the case’s critical facts are undisputed, and the judge can rule based on the law.
A motion for summary judgment is a request for the court to rule that the other party has no case because there are no facts at issue. It is often used when the facts are undisputed and only the interpretation of the law is in question.
Let’s say a tenant sues a landlord for not returning a security deposit. The landlord admits that they didn’t return the deposit but argues that it was used to repair damage caused by the tenant. If the lease clearly states that the security deposit can be used for this purpose and the tenant doesn’t dispute causing the damage, the landlord could file a motion for summary judgment. If the judge agrees that there are no significant facts in dispute and that the landlord is entitled to use the deposit for repairs according to the lease agreement, the judge may grant the motion, dismissing the case before it reaches trial.
Do I Need to Hire an Attorney?
Navigating the complexities of the civil system, understanding your rights and responsibilities, and effectively arguing your case can be challenging. Therefore, it’s typically advisable to hire an attorney when involved in a civil dispute. An experienced civil lawyer can provide valuable counsel, develop a robust legal strategy, and advocate on your behalf.
Whether you’re facing a potential lawsuit or considering legal action against another party, you can find an experienced civil lawyer through LegalMatch. Our attorneys can guide you through every stage of the civil litigation process and ensure your interests are well-represented.