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A federal Civil Case involves a legal dispute between two or more parties. A civil action begins when a party to a dispute files a complaint, and pays a filing fee required by statute. A plaintiff who is unable to pay the fee may file a request to proceed in forma pauperis (Someone who is without the funds to pursue the normal costs of a lawsuit or criminal defense.) If the request is granted, the fee is waived.

The Process of a Civil Case

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.

We can break down the process of a civil case into four steps.

Step One: Preparing For The Case

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. This is known as “Discovery”. The purpose of discovery is to prepare for trial by requiring the litigants to assemble their evidence and prepare to call witnesses. Discovery may include a deposition, requiring a witness to answer questions about the case before the trial. The witness answers questions from the lawyer under oath, in the presence of a court reporter, who produces a word-for-word account called a transcript. 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 tria

Step Two: Settling of Differences

It is encouraged the litigants to try to reach an agreement resolving their dispute. Often times Judges encourage an agreement be reached to avoid the expense and delay of having a trial. The courts encourage the use of mediation, arbitration, and other forms of alternative dispute resolution, designed to produce a resolution of a dispute without the need for trial or other court proceedings. As a result, litigants often agree to a “settlement.” If a settlement is not reached, the court will then schedule a trial.

Step Three: Trial Process

By applying rules of evidence, the judge determines which information may be presented in the courtroom. Witnesses are kept out of the courtroom until they testify so that they speak only on their knowledge and do not change their statement based off the court hearing. A record of the trial proceedings is kept by a court reporter, and a deputy clerk of court keeps a record of each person who testifies and any documents, photographs, or other items introduced into evidence.

The opposing attorney may object if a question 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. Generally, the judge either overrules or sustains (allows) the objection. If the objection is sustained, the witness does not answer the question, and the attorney must move on to his next question.

Step Four: Closing

Both sides will give a closing argument after the evidence is heard. In a jury trial, the judge will explain the law that is relevant to the case and the decisions the jury needs to make. It is usually asked of the jury to determine whether or not 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 it is a Bench Trial (a case tried before a judge with no jury) The judge will decide the outcome and order some kind of relief.

 

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