Civil Cases in the United States
Civil cases differ in several key respects from criminal cases. First, there is no governmental party that plays a role comparable to that of a prosecutor. As a result, the plaintiff or initiating party in a civil case exercises substantial control over a case. If the plaintiff wishes to drop a case or settle, he or she is able to do so. As a representative of society at large, a prosecutor has the authority to proceed with a criminal case even if the victim or complaining party changes his or her mind. Second, criminal cases are more stringently governed by constitutional and other legal safeguards. Defendants in criminal actions, for example, are legally entitled to assistance of counsel. If a criminal defendant is indigent, the court is required to provide counsel. Civil litigants are essentially responsible for their own lawyers. Speedy trial and other requirements of due process tend to ensure that criminal cases are not unduly delayed. It is not unusual for delays in excess of two or three years to exist for civil dockets, especially in urban courts. Thus, litigants in civil cases are more susceptible to the inequities stemming from resource differences between parties. Third, different standards apply to decision making for the two categories of cases. A jury must be convinced “beyond a reasonable doubt” that a defendant committed a crime before it can convict.
Civil cases may be decided in favor of the party carrying a “preponderance of evidence,” a less demanding standard than used in criminal cases.
Notes and References
- Definition of Civil Cases from the American Law Dictionary, 1991, California
Civil Cases and the Federal Courts
In the words of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts: A federal civil case involves a legal dispute between two or more parties. To begin a civil lawsuit in federal court, the plaintiff files a complaint with the court and “serves” a copy of the complaint on the defendant. The complaint describes the plaintiff’s damages or injury, explains how the defendant caused the harm, shows that the court has jurisdiction, and asks the court to order relief. A plaintiff may seek money to compensate for the damages, or may ask the court to order the defendant to stop the conduct that is causing the harm. The court may also order other types of relief, such as a declaration of the legal rights of the plaintiff in a particular situation. To prepare a case for trial, the litigants may conduct “discovery.” In discovery, the litigants must provide information to each other about the case, such as the identity of witnesses and copies of any documents related to the case. The purpose of discovery is to prepare for trial by requiring the litigants to assemble their evidence and prepare to call witnesses. Each side also may file requests, or “motions,” with the court seeking rulings on the discovery of evidence, or on the procedures to be followed at trial. One common method of discovery is the deposition. In a deposition a witness is required to answer questions about the case before the trial. Lawyers “depose” the witness by asking questions that the witness answers, under oath, in the presence of a court reporter. The court reporter is a person specially trained to record all testimony and produce a word-for-word account called a transcript.
More about Civil Cases
To avoid the expense and delay of having a trial, judges encourage the litigants to try to reach an agreement resolving their dispute. In particular, the courts encourage the use of mediation, arbitration, and other forms of alternative dispute resolution, or “ADR,” designed to produce an early resolution of a dispute without the need for trial or other court proceedings. As a result, litigants often decide to resolve a civil lawsuit with an agreement known as a “settlement.” If a case is not settled, the court will schedule a trial. In a wide variety of civil cases, either side is entitled under the Constitution to request a jury trial. If the parties waive their right to a jury, then the case will be heard by a judge without a jury. At a trial, witnesses testify under the supervision of a judge. By applying rules of evidence, the judge determines which information may be presented in the courtroom. To ensure that witnesses speak from their own knowledge and do not change their story based on what they hear another witness say, witnesses are kept out of the courtroom until it is time for them to testify. A court reporter keeps a record of the trial proceedings. A deputy clerk of court also keeps a record of each person who testifies and marks for the record any documents, photographs, or other items introduced into evidence.
As the questioning of a witness proceeds, the opposing attorney may object to a question if it invites the witness to say something that is not based on the witness’s personal knowledge, is unfairly prejudicial, or is irrelevant to the case. The judge rules on the objection, generally by ruling that it is either sustained or overruled. If the objection is sustained, the witness does not answer the question, and the attorney must move on to his next question. The court reporter records the objections so that a court of appeals can review the arguments later if necessary. At the conclusion of the evidence, each side gives a closing argument. In a jury trial, the judge will explain the law that is relevant to the case and the decisions the jury needs to make. The jury generally is asked to determine whether the defendant is responsible for harming the plaintiff in some way, and then to determine the amount of damages that the defendant will be required to pay. If the case is being tried before a judge without a jury, known as a “bench” trial, the judge will decide these issues or order some kind of relief to the prevailing party. In a civil case the plaintiff must convince the jury by a “preponderance of the evidence” (i.e., that it is more likely than not) that the defendant is responsible for the harm the plaintiff has suffered.
Leading Case Law
Among the main judicial decisions on this topic:
Ross v. Bernhard
Information about this important court opinion is available in this American legal Encyclopedia.
- Jury System
- Right to Trial
- Trial Jury