How Court Cases Start


How a Civil Case is Started

This section is general information about the start of civil cases, not criminal cases. Every civil court case (also called a lawsuit) starts with papers that tell the court and the other side what the case is about. A court case must be started in writing. All legal papers must be typed or printed neatly in English, in black ink, on 8 ½ x11 inch paper, double spaced, using one side of the paper only. Papers should be stapled together. The papers must be given to the court. Giving legal papers to the court is called filing. In some Courts and Case Types, you can file your papers over the internet. This is called e-filing. Read more about E-filing.

In some cases, like money cases, a person or organization files legal papers called a complaint. The filer is called the plaintiff and the person complained about is called the defendant. In other cases, like family or landlord-tenant cases, the person or organization starting the case files a petition and the filer is called the petitioner and the other side is called the respondent. The defendant or respondent also gets a summons or notice. Reading the topic sections you are interested in will give you more information.

A case must be started in the right court and before the time to start the case has run out. There are laws called statutes of limitations that say the time periods for starting a case. This depends on the type of claim.

The papers starting the case must be delivered to the other side the right way. This is called service. In most cases (not Family Court), there is a court fee to start a case. If you can’t afford to pay the court fee, you can ask the court for a fee waiver.


The Answer in a Civil Case

The defendant or respondent has a time limit to answer the claims in the complaint or petition. The amount of time is not the same for every case because it matters how the legal papers are delivered and what kind of case it is.

The answer explains the defendant or respondent’s side of the story. It says which statements the defendant or respondent disagrees with and tells the court any defenses and claims that the defendant or respondent has.

Instead of answering, the defendant or respondent can ask the court to dismiss the case by making a motion or order to show cause.

If the defendant or respondent does not answer in time or make a motion, the plaintiff or petitioner can ask the court for a Default Judgment. A default judgment can give the plaintiff or petitioner what he or she wants because the defendant did not tell his or her side of the story. Reading the topic sections you are interested in will give you more information.


After the Answer is Filed

After the Answer is filed, the case continues with the next step. Different things can happen, like you may get a trial date, or you and the other side start to exchange information (Discovery). In Supreme and County Courts, one side may ask the court to assign a Judge by filing a Request for Judicial Intervention (RJI). In some courts, your case may be sent to someone to work with you and the other side to see if there are Ways to Settle Your Case. One of the ways to settle your case is called Alternative Dispute Resolution or “ADR”.

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