The simple definition of litigation is: the process of taking legal action. Generally it refers to the process of resolving disputes by filing a claim in the public court system. Litigation is governed by a number of rules for the appropriate court, such as: Rules of Civil Procedure, Rules of Appellate Procedure, and Rules of Evidence. These are supplemented by the local rules of each court and the standing orders of the judges.
Generally the major steps in a civil case are as follows:
- A complaint is filed with the clerk of the appropriate court. The person filing the complaint is called a plaintiff.
- The complaint is served on the other person(s) involved in the dispute (who are called defendants).
- The defendant files an answer to the complaint or files a motion to dismiss the case.
- The court may conduct a pretrial conference and/or issue a scheduling order for the case.
- Parties disclose information and documents and the discovery process moves forward. Depositions of the parties or other witnesses may be taken (which involves questioning the witness under oath).
- Defendant may file motions seeking to get the case thrown out or to narrow the issues involved. Plaintiff may also file motions seeking to narrow the issues or address other matters.
- The court holds a final pre-trial conference.
- The court conducts a trial of the issues in dispute between the parties. Each side presents its evidence as allowed by the rules (in many cases a jury is seated to hear the evidence).
- The court renders a judgment on the issues in dispute (if there is a jury generally the judgment is based upon their verdict).
- Appeal may be taken by the losing party if they believe there were errors in the handling of the case.
- On appeal the parties file briefs setting forth their arguments to the court of appeals. There may be an oral argument before the court of appeals judges.
- The appellate judges issue a ruling.
- In some circumstances other proceedings may be had after this, but most cases go no further and judgment is final.
- The judgment is enforced as is appropriate under the circumstances (which may involve a whole new set of procedures if collecting money damages is involved).
At any time during this process the parties may discuss settlement and attempt to resolve their dispute. Often the court will offer, or order, the parties to engage in mediation in an attempt to resolve the case prior to trial. In a mediation proceeding the parties get together with a mediator who tries to facilitate the resolution of the case. Most civil cases filed in court are resolved by settlement or dismissal before trial.
If you are involved in litigation it is important to have an attorney to guide you through the process with its complex and often confusing rules. All litigants face deadlines with serious consequences for failure to timely respond or comply. Make sure you understand your rights and responsibilities if you are a party to any litigation or you will likely regret it later.