How Court Cases Start

en español>

The first stage of the court case is called the “pleading” stage. During this part, each party files their first papers. In general, the plaintiff files a complaint (or petition) with the court and the defendant files an answer (or response, or plea) to the complaint. When parties file their first papers they are said to “appear in the case.”

The pleadings filed with the court state the parties’ basic positions. They include:

  • Each party’s version of the facts of the case
  • Each party’s understanding of the legal issues involved
  • The decision each party would like the court to make to resolve the dispute.

Other pleadings may include a “reply” to new facts or issues raised in these first papers, a “counterclaim” by the defendant which states that the plaintiff injured him or her in some way, or a “demurrer,” which claims that the complaint is not valid for some reason. Additional papers may be filed, with the goal of making it very clear to the judge exactly what facts and legal issues need to be decided to settle the case.

1.  Lawsuits begin with the filing of some sort of complaint in the proper court.


In criminal cases, the government brings charges against the person alleged to have committed a crime.

  • The representative of the government is called the “prosecutor;” the person accused of having committed a crime is called the “defendant.”
  • The formal reading of a criminal complaint, in the presence of the defendant, takes place during an “arraignment” hearing at court. This informs the defendant of the charges against him or her.
  • In response to arraignment, the accused is expected to enter a plea. Acceptable pleas vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but they generally include "guilty", or "not guilty.

    • If the defendant pleads guilty an “evidentiary hearing” usually follows. During that hearing the judge will evaluate the offense, factors that could make punishment less harsh, and the defendant's character; and then pass sentence.
    • If the defendant pleads not guilty, a date will be set for a “preliminary hearing” or trial.

In civil cases, a person or organization files a complaint about another person or organization with a description of the filer's legal or factual claims about the case and what the filer wants from the court.

  • In many civil cases, the person or organization that files the complaint is called the “plaintiff,” and the person complained about is called the “defendant.”
  • In some types of cases, however, such as family law, a person or organization files a “petition.” Then, the person who filed the petition is called the “petitioner,” and the other person is called the “respondent.”
  • In response to the complaint or petition, the defendant or respondent is expected to file with the court either an “answer” or a “response.”
NOTE: If the defendant or respondent fails to respond in time, the plaintiff or petitioner can apply for what is called a “default judgment.” That is, the plaintiff or petitioner can get what her or she wants because the defendant or respondent does not tell the court his or her side of the story.

In California, there are court forms for many types of complaints. These include the language needed to let the court know the basic facts of the case, the law under which the case is brought, and what the plaintiff wants the court to do. Ask the court’s clerk’s office if there are court forms you can (or must) use.

2.  After a complaint is filed, the court will issue a “Summons” (in civil cases).

After a complaint is filed with the Clerk’s Office (along with the required filing fee), the court will issue a paper called a “summons.” The purpose of the summons is to let the defendant know that he or she is being sued.

The court summons will include: the names of the plaintiff and defendant, the name, address and phone number of the plaintiff’s lawyer (if he or she has one), the case number (assigned by the Clerk’s Office), and the dates by which the next pleading (normally, the defendant’s answer) must be filed.

3.  Service of Process for the Plaintiff (in civil cases).

It is the responsibility of the plaintiff to arrange for someone 18 years old or older, who is not involved in the case, to physically deliver the court summons and complaint to the defendant. This is called “service of process,” and is a very important step in the process.

The court will require “proof of service.” This is usually a form, filled out by the person who delivered to papers, saying when, how, and on whom the complaint and summons were served. The “proof of service” has to be filed with the court.


4.  The person being sued has to file some sort of answer, response or plea with the court – usually within a time limit (as written on the Summons).

The “answer” is a statement by the defendant or respondent that usually explains his or her side of the story. It says which statements by the complaining party the defendant does not agree with, and gives the facts and legal issues as the defendant understands them. It may also offer additional facts, or plead an excuse.

In California, there are court forms for many types of answers, or responses. These include the language needed to let the court know the basic facts of the case, the law under which the case is brought, and what the defendant or respondent wants the court to do. Ask the court’s clerk’s office if there are court forms you can (or must) use.

AS NOTED ABOVE: If the defendant or respondent fails to respond in time, the plaintiff or petitioner can apply for what is called a “default judgment.” That is, the plaintiff or petitioner can get what her or she wants because the defendant or respondent does not tell the court his or her side of the story.

5.  Service of Process for the Defendant (in civil cases).

It is the responsibility of the defendant to arrange for someone 18 years old or older, who is not involved in the case, to deliver the answer, response or plea to the plaintiff. This is called “service of process,” and is a very important step in the case.

The court will require “proof of service.” This is usually a form, filled out by the person who delivered to papers, saying when, how, and on whom the answer or response were served. The “proof of service” has to be filed with the court.

6.  Resolving the dispute during the pleading stage of the case.

Sometimes, when parties see the complaints and answers written down on paper, they realize that their versions of the story are not so different. Through a bit of negotiation, perhaps, they might come to a fair resolution of the dispute without going to trial. This would save them – and the court – a lot of time and money.

However, if the dispute cannot be settled during the pleading stage of the case, then the two sides have to begin to prepare for trial. This next stage in a lawsuit is called “discovery.”

 <BACK TO HOW COURTS WORK

  NEXT>

 

Did this information help you?  Tell us what you think.