Civil Process in the United States
The civil process is governed by rules and procedures established largely through statute. While these processes are relatively formalized, civil litigants do not bring with them the constitutional protections that apply to criminal defendants. While a number of discrete steps exists, the process can be divided into four principal stages. The first is commencement of the suit. The plaintiff files a complaint, jurisdiction is established over the defendant through a service or notification process, and the defendant files some kind of answer. Next, there is a lengthy pretrial period during which discovery of evidence occurs. Discovery can take several forms and is the heart of the civil process in many respects. Other pretrial procedures exist, including conferences scheduled by civil courts between the parties. The objective is to ready a case for trial, but judges use the conference to move the parties to settlement if possible. It has also become common for alternate means of conflict resolution to be sought, such as mediation and arbitration. In some jurisdictions, these processes must be attempted before a case can be tried. By the time the third or trial stage is reached, much time has elapsed and an overwhelming majority of civil cases have been resolved by settlement. A trial occurs when fact-finding by a third party—a judge or jury—is still required to conclude the case. The final stage has to do with relief or remedy. It is the function of civil courts, once a judgment has been rendered, to enforce that judgment in some way such that a successful civil plaintiff has his or her injury remedied to the fullest extent possible. As with criminal cases, there are avenues of appeal that may be pursued by parties to civil actions.
Notes and References
- Definition of Civil Process from the American Law Dictionary, 1991, California