Civil Courts

Civil Courts in the United States

There are several kinds of matters confronting the civil courts. The largest category are cases aimed at recovery of debts. What the litigant seeks is the payment of what is legally due. For example, a person buys a house for a contracted amount and is obligated to make mortgage payments on a monthly basis. If the person falls behind in the payments, the financing agency may bring suit to either enlist the court’s assistance in recovering past due payments or recover control of the property by foreclosure. The situations under which debt recovery issues might arise are virtually infinite. A more complex kind of civil action is one where damages are involved. The compensation sought in this kind of case is often more difficult to gauge because it may involve, for example, some kind of physical disability and what constitutes adequate compensation for the loss.

A third category of civil case are those that involve people’s status or their relationships to one another. The most common of these cases are domestic relations or divorce actions. In addition to focusing on the marital relationship of the spouses, this kind of case often involves the matter of child custody and support. Adoption of children and the involuntary commitment of people to institutions are other examples of this category of civil case. Finally, there are public policy cases in the civil courts. These cases focus on a particular matter of substance or procedure arising out of governmental policy or practice. Application procedures or eligibility criteria for public assistance, for example, might be challenged as arbitrary or discriminatory by a person unsuccessfully seeking access to such a program. This category does not produce large numbers of cases, but their policy consequences make them disproportionately significant.

Special mention needs to be made of the matter of congestion and backlog found in civil courts. Congestion exists because new filings have outpaced the courts’ capacity to dispose of cases. This has been true for many years. The problem is compounded because there is no agent, such as a prosecutor, to act as a screen on new cases. The victim of a crime cannot pursue the case without going through the prosecutor while a civil litigant can file any kind of case directly with the appropriate court. In addition, as the rules governing both civil and criminal cases have become more extensive, the time it takes for the fact-finding processes of trials has lengthened. Finally, some litigants benefit from delay, so delay in moving a case forward to conclusion will be strategically pursued.

The consequences of delay are many and generally undesirable, but three stand out. Delay necessarily erodes the quality of fact-finding. Witnesses forget or become unavailable, and the court becomes less able to accurately judge fact disputes. Delay also prompts certain behaviors that would not exist otherwise. Courts tend to become dependent on civil case settlements as a way of moving the caseload. Indeed, the courts often strongly encourage settlement. To the extent a court feels a sense of urgency about disposing of cases, the role of the court has been redefined. Finally, delay affects parties to civil actions differentially. The litigant seeking damages in a serious personal injury case may not be able to withstand a lengthy delay and settles the case for a fraction of the amount sought when the case was originally filed. The defendant in our example is typically an insurance company, a party whose interests are enhanced by delay and the pressures to settle that stem from delay.

Notes and References

  1. Definition of Civil Courts from the American Law Dictionary, 1991, California

Civil Courts: Open and Free Legal Research of US Law

Federal Primary Materials

The U.S. federal government system consists of executive, legislative, and judicial branches, each of which creates information that can be the subject of legal research about Civil Courts. This part provides references, in relation to Civil Courts, to the legislative process, the federal judiciary, and the primary sources of federal law (cases, statutes, and regulations).

Federal primary materials about Civil Courts by content types:

Laws and Regulations

US Constitution
Federal Statutory Codes and Legislation

Federal Case Law and Court Materials

U.S. Courts of Appeals
United States courts of appeals, inclouding bankruptcy courts and bankcruptcy appellate panels:

Federal Administrative Materials and Resources

Presidential Materials

Materials that emanate from the President’s lawmaking function include executive orders for officers in departments and agencies and proclamations for announcing ceremonial or commemorative policies. Presidential materials available include:

Executive Materials

Federal Legislative History Materials

Legislative history traces the legislative process of a particular bill (about Civil Courts and other subjects) for the main purpose of determining the legislators’ intent behind the enactment of a law to explain or clarify ambiguities in the language or the perceived meaning of that law (about Civil Courts or other topics), or locating the current status of a bill and monitoring its progress.

State Administrative Materials and Resources

State regulations are rules and procedures promulgated by state agencies (which may apply to Civil Courts and other topics); they are a binding source of law. In addition to promulgating regulations, state administrative boards and agencies often have judicial or quasi-judicial authority and may issue administrative decisions affecting Civil Courts. Finding these decisions can be challenging. In many cases, researchers about Civil Courts should check state agency web sites for their regulations, decisions, forms, and other information of interest.

State rules and regulations are found in codes of regulations and administrative codes (official compilation of all rules and regulations, organized by subject matter). Search here:

State opinions of the Attorney General (official written advisory opinions on issues of state law related to Civil Courts when formerly requested by a designated government officer):

Tools and Forms

Law in Other Regions

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