How Court Cases End

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The last stage of the court case is called the “judgment.” It is the decision by the court that resolves the dispute brought before it, and determines the rights and obligations of the parties. Only the court can close a case. Either side can ask the court to close the case, but the court has the final word.

Court cases can end in many ways. Often they end very soon after the first papers were filed with the court, but complex cases can go on for several years. And if a child is involved, the case will stay open until the child turns 18 years old, gets married, goes into the military, or in some other way becomes “emancipated” and the court closes the case.

1.  Cases can end by negotiation between the parties.


In California, a large percentage of cases are resolved by negotiation between the parties. This can happen at any time – before, during, or even after a court case.

  • In a criminal case, for example, a prosecutor may offer a defendant the chance to avoid trial by admitting guilt to a lesser charge. This is called “plea bargaining.” If the judge accepts the guilty plea, he or she will decide on the sentence. If the sentence is time in jail, the case is usually considered closed. If the sentence includes probation, the case will be closed when the terms of the probation have been filled.
  • In a civil case, the people involved may agree to settle the dispute by compromise. This is called “stipulation.” If the judge accepts their settlement, he or she will make their settlement a court order, and then usually the case will be closed.

2.  Cases can end by dismissal.

A dismissal is a decision by a judge to end a case with no further hearings. A case may be dismissed at any time up to final judgment.

  • A case may be dismissed on “procedural grounds” – one of the parties did not follow the court’s procedures (rules and regulations) properly.
  • A case may be dismissed on “substantive grounds” – either the plaintiff could not show that he or she had been sufficiently wronged, or some part of the complaint was found to be untrue.

NOTE: It is the court that decides if the case may be re-filed or not.

  • Dismissal without prejudice: A dismissal that does not stop the plaintiff from re-filing the lawsuit within the applicable time limits.
  • Dismissal with prejudice: A dismissal – usually after a decision about the substantive grounds of a case – barring the plaintiff from filing a suit again on the same claim.

3.  Cases can end by "default".

At the start of a civil court case, the defendant or respondent has to be properly "served" Opens new window with a copy of the complaint or petition, and with a court summons. This lets the defendant know that he or she is being sued, and where and when to file an answer or response.

If the defendant does not respond, this failure is seen as an admission of the truth of the complaint or petition. For this reason, the plaintiff or petitioner can apply for what is called a “default judgment.”

A default judgment is a court order granting a judgment against the defendant. Once a default judgment is filed and written into the official court records, it has the status of any other judgment. It is as if the plaintiff had conducted and won a full trial.

4.  Cases can end after a trial.


If the case goes all of the way through the system to the trial stage, then either a judge or jury, depending on the case, will decide:

  • The facts of the case
  • The laws that apply
  • The appropriate actions that need to be taken, and who should take them.

Once a court makes a judgment that resolves the dispute brought before it, and determines the rights and obligations of the parties, the case is usually considered closed.

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