Basic Stages of Civil Litigation

Many people will say that there are more than three basic stages of civil litigation but one way of codifying this is to say that the three basic stages of civil litigation are pleadings, discovery and trial. The term civil litigation is a term that describes the legal process of filing and subsequent application of a non-criminal, civil lawsuit.  

Pleadings is the beginning stage of civil litigation where the plaintiff files a complaint (this is usually the plaintiff’s lawyer who does this on their behalf) and the defendant has a chance to respond to it as well as to make any counter-claims or other more unusual pleadings such as, cross-claims or third-party complaints. If there is a dispute over the sufficiency of a complaint, its jurisdiction and/or the court it was filed in, or other foundational issues, this is the phase of civil litigation where these things are dealt with.

Pleadings do not deal with evidence or proof, this comes later in a civil trial. Pleadings are about allegations which simply put, are a claim or assertion that someone has done something illegal or wrong without backing it up with proof. For example, if you say that someone drove through a red light, it is an allegation but if you say that you saw someone (with your own eyes) drive through a red light, this is a statement of evidence.

In simple terms, pleadings are held in order to tell the other side what your side intends to prove during a pending trial.

After the pleadings stage has been completed, civil cases move on to discovery. Discovery is the process when both sides in a case gather information to help strengthen the arguments they intend to make during the trial. The law expects both sides to provide the evidence that they intend to use during the trial, to the opposing side. This information generally comes in the form of documents, including electronic ones, written answers to questions, depositions, inspection of physical property or objects, and inspection of IT equipment and information.

Once enough discovery has been performed, one side or the other may request a summary judgement. A summary judgement is a court order ruling that says that no factual issues remain to be tried in a case and the cause(s) of action in a complaint can be decided up certain facts without a trial. Getting a summary judgement granted can be a complicated and time consuming process but it is less so than an actual trial.

The trial stage of a case is where the lawyers on both sides present their opening statements, all of their information, including examinations, cross-examinations, and depositions of witnesses, evidence, and closing arguments, in front of either a judge, or a jury and a judge. When a civil lawsuit is tried before and decided on by only a judge, it is called a bench trial. A jury trial is when there is a jury who, under instructions of the presiding judge, decides the outcome of a case.

Some trials only take a day or a few but many trials take many weeks to complete. Some juries have come back with a verdict within just a few hours of being sent to deliberate their decision but juries can take weeks to come to an agreement about the outcome of a case.

Many cases settle before going to trial. If one side of the case disagrees with the outcome of it, they can appeal the court’s decision.

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