When most people think of the criminal justice system they think of cops, jail time, and hardened criminals. However, the system isn’t as simple and one-pronged as that. There is actually another component that most people are also familiar with even if they don’t realize it. Civil litigation is actually a huge part of our social system and encompasses all of the non-criminal aspects of life that can cause conflict and need resolutions. The most common areas that this type of litigation is used include tenant-landlord disputes, neighbor disputes, employment disputes such as worker compensation claims, and other areas such as malpractice suits or suing a school district.
And unlike small claims court where neither party can use an attorney in court, civil litigation often requires an attorney to help the parties work through the issue to a successful resolution.
Civil litigation usually starts with a conflict that is unresolved between two parties. The next stage begins when one or both parties seek legal counsel. Once it reaches this stage the attorney will investigate the claim for merits and if there is cause for a case, it moves to the next stage, which is putting the complaint in writing and notifying the other party. This formal documentation is called pleadings.
The next step is an exchange of information and facts between the two parties of evidence that is intended to be brought up in court. This stage is called discovery and if the opposition feels your case is stronger at this point the whole matter can end with a settlement. If on the other hand, both sides feel their case is strong enough for a win, it continues to a pre-trial and then a trial and then, of course, a judgment. At any point, either party can attempt to settle rather than risk the judgment of a court.
Since this type of litigation carries no jail sanctions or criminal record for the losing party, neither party can be appointed a court-appointed attorney as a defendant can in a criminal court proceeding. So if you are willing to pursue civil litigation you will need to be prepared for the cost for your attorney and another court cost. Some cases can be settled rather quickly and other cases can go on for years depending on the degree of severity and how much money each party can afford to throw at them. Cigarette companies for example have been notorious for stretching out lawsuits against them for years and fighting any judgments that go against them for even longer. So depending on whom you are going against and the strength of your case and how deep your own pockets are, you may be in for a long fight.
And, also unlike criminal law where the state ensures the sanctions are imposed, if you win a monetary judgment you still have to collect it and often this involves more civil litigation to garnish wages and property towards your judgment.