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How Court Cases Work

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The California court system is set up to resolve disputes, which are called “cases,” “suits,” or “actions.”

  • Criminal cases involve reported violations of the public order.
  • Civil cases are disputes over private legal rights.

To resolve a dispute, a court must do two things.

  • It must “find the facts” of the dispute (in other works, decide what actually happened) and
  • It must apply the appropriate legal principles to the facts.

One way of resolving a court case is by a trial – a public hearing during which each side presents:

  • Evidence to support his or her version of “the facts,” and
  • Legal arguments which suggest to the judge which legal principles to apply.

If a case goes to trial, generally the parties can ask to have a jury. If they do, then:

  • The jury will “find the facts” of the dispute, and
  • The judge will apply the appropriate legal principles to these facts.

It should be emphasized, however, that most lawsuits -- some 80 percent of cases filed with California courts -- are resolved before they reach trial.

  • In a criminal case, for example, a prosecutor may offer a defendant the chance to avoid trial by admitting guilt to a lesser charge, thus escaping the more severe sentence that might be imposed if he or she were found guilty after being tried on the original charge. This is called “plea bargaining.”
  • In a civil case, the people involved may agree to settle the dispute by compromise, because each side fears that it may lose, or that what it may win at trial will not justify the expense of carrying the case that far. This is called “stipulation.”

Since the goal of the whole system is to resolve disputes, this can be done at any time. A dispute can be settled before a suit is filed. Once a suit is filed, it can be settled before the trial begins, during the trial, while the jury is deliberating, or even after a verdict is handed down.

  • A settlement doesn’t usually state that anyone was right or wrong in the case.
  • A settlement does not have to solve the whole case. Part of a dispute can be settled, with the remaining issues left to be resolved by the judge or jury.

Most courts have alternative dispute resolution (ADR) programs associated with them. Disputes settled through ADR are usually less expensive and more effective than those resolved through a trial.

However, people have a right to have their dispute resolved by trial. Trials normally are described as having four stages:

  1. The “pleading” stage, during which formal documents are filed with the court that state the parties’ basic positions.
  2. The “discovery” stage, during which there is a formal process of exchanging information between the parties about the witnesses and evidence they’ll present at trial.
  3. The “trial” stage, during which each side gets ready for court to make or defend his or her case before either a judge alone, or a judge and jury.
  4. The “after trial” stage, which will be very different for the parties depending on whether they won or lost the case.

Court staff will provide information about the court system and try to help parties manage their cases, but the work of establishing each side’s version of the facts and framing the legal issues of the case has to be done by the parties involved.

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