A civil court is a court of law that handles various types of civil cases. The purpose of civil court is to hear civil cases. It does not hear criminal cases.
A civil lawsuit is filed in a civil court. It involves an individual, or plaintiff, filing a complaint against another individual, or defendant, whom they believe has injured them in some way or has caused them property damage.
A plaintiff in a civil lawsuit is usually requesting damages, or monetary payment. Alternatively, they may be seeking equitable damages, such as an injunction, which is a court order instructing the defendant to take some action or cease an action. For example, if an individual is involved in a car accident, they may file a civil lawsuit in civil court under personal injury laws. They may seek compensation for damage to their vehicle, medical costs, lost wages, and other expenses.
What Types of Claims and Disputes do Civil Courts Review?
There are several different types of claims and disputes that civil courts handle. These include legal issues in areas of law such as:
- Personal injury;
- Family law;
- Property and real estate;
- Business; and
- Intellectual property disputes.
How are Civil Courts Different from a Criminal Court?
Civil court cases and criminal court cases are different in many ways. The laws, punishments, and the burdens of proof are different in both court systems.
In civil lawsuits, individuals or organizations bring each other to court. These cases often involve a dispute of some sort. The penalties typically involve financial or property compensation. The right to a jury trial is not guaranteed in civil cases that seek an equitable remedy.
In criminal cases, the case is brought to either federal or state by law enforcement. The government brings a case against an individual and carries the burden of proof. Penalties can vary widely and by jurisdiction. The right to a jury trial in criminal cases is guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment.
The burden of proof in the two types of cases is also different. In a civil case, the elements of the case must be proven by a preponderance of the evidence. This is often described as when 51% of the evidence points to one party being right.
In a criminal case, the elements must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt in order to find a defendant guilty. In other words, there can be no reasonable uncertainty of guilt. This is considered to be a higher burden of proof.
The legal consequences are also different in civil and criminal cases. Civil cases typically result in monetary damages or an injunction. Criminal cases typically involve jail time and criminal fines.
There are constitutional protections that are afforded to defendants in criminal cases that are not always applicable in civil court. This includes the right to have an attorney appointed in criminal cases.
In some cases, a civil lawsuit may follow a criminal case. For example, if an individual is found not guilty of murder, they may still be found liable in a wrongful death case.
How do I File a Case in a Civil Court?
Before filing any action in civil court, it is essential to determine if there is a statute of limitations that applies to your cause of action or legal claim against the other party. The statute of limitations is the timeframe within which an individual must file a lawsuit. For example, if the statute of limitations for a breach of contract is four years, an individual has four years to file a lawsuit from the date of the breach.
If an individual does not file their lawsuit within the time prescribed in the statute of limitations, their case may not be heard. There are some exceptions to these rules, but they only apply in certain circumstances. An attorney can determine the proper cause of action as well as the statute of limitations for an individual’s case.
What is considered timely filing of a claim will vary by jurisdiction and the type of claim. There are three main reasons for statutes of limitations:
- The statute forces a plaintiff with a valid cause of action to bring the claim in a timely manner;
- Bringing an untimely claim may result in the loss of evidence necessary for a defendant to defend themselves against the claim; and
- Litigation of a long-dormant claim may result in more cruelty to the parties than justice.
If an individual decides to file a lawsuit in civil court, they would begin by filing a complaint. An individual can file a complaint themselves at a local clerk’s office or courthouse, but it is advisable to have an attorney file the complaint.
Some courts have self-help centers that will assist an individual who has decided to sue or defend against a lawsuit themselves. Some courts also provide fill-in-the-blank forms for individuals to file their own paperwork.
Additionally, some court websites have FAQ sections or forms available. Certain matters can be complex and it is always in an individual’s best interest to have a lawyer’s assistance.
The complaint will contain the cause of action that the individual is suing for, such as:
A lawsuit begins with pleadings. Pleadings are formal documents filed with the court that outlines the parties’ basic positions.
Common pleadings include:
- The complaint, where the plaintiff outlines their claims and version of the facts as well as specifies the damages they are seeking;
- The answer, where the defendant explains why the plaintiff should not prevail, offers additional facts, affirmative defenses, or pleadings of an excuse;
- The reply. Any party in a case may be required to file a reply, which is an answer to new allegations or claims raised in pleadings.
- The counterclaim, if applicable. A defendant may file a counterclaim, which asserts that the plaintiff has also injured the defendant in some way and should also be liable for damages.
A plaintiff may be required to file either a fact pleading or a notice pleading, depending on the jurisdiction. A fact pleading contains details of the case and shows support for the elements of the claim using facts of the case. A notice pleading, in contracts, only requires the plaintiff to provide sufficient notice of the claim, such as stating that the individual is suing the defendant for negligence arising from a traffic collision.
If a case is filed in federal court, an individual may file a fact pleading but only a notice pleading is required. If an individual is unsure what type of pleading is required, they should consult with an attorney as filing the incorrect pleading may result in a dismissal of their lawsuit. For example, if an individual files a notice pleading in a jurisdiction that requires a fact pleading, the defendant may file a motion to dismiss the lawsuit because the complaint did not allege sufficient facts to support the claim.
If an individual files the incorrect type of pleading, they may also be required to file another pleading which results in more money due to additional filing fees and more time spent filing the additional pleadings. Pleadings can be complicated but an attorney familiar with the process and the requirements of the specific jurisdiction can simplify the process and help it run much more smoothly.
Should I Hire a Lawyer If I Need Representation in Civil Court?
Yes, it is essential to have the assistance of a civil lawyer for any cases heard in civil court. In civil cases, each party obtains their own attorneys. Your attorney can review your case, advise you on the issues involved, and represent you during any court proceedings, if necessary.
In some cases, your attorney may also be able to help you negotiate with the other party in order to avoid having to go to court. Your attorney will also ensure your case is filed in a timely manner. Having an attorney on your side can mean the difference between prevailing and losing your civil case.