Civil and criminal litigation have the same fundamental model; parties present their argument to a judge in either state or federal court, the judge analyzes the evidence the parties have presented to the court and the judge issues a verdict based on that evidence. The distinction between the two is in the types of matters that may be handled in either civil or criminal court. Civil cases involve disputes between private persons. The parties may be individuals, businesses or the government. Criminal cases are between an individual and the government and concern a crime or statutory violation that may have been committed by the defendant.
Prior to Trial
Most state cases are civil in nature. In these matters, the plaintiff lists his or her specific grievances in a complaint that he or she files with the court. The plaintiff also serves a summons on the defendant, making them aware of the claims against them. The party who receives the summons has an opportunity to respond to the complaint and file an answer with the court and refute the claims or file a motion to dismiss. When the plaintiff files a complaint, he or she should also request a remedy. The remedy will usually be financial in a civil matter. Sometimes the party may request non-financial restitution, but this is less common. Additionally, the plaintiff may also request an action from the court, such as an injunction (stopping an action or behavior) or a restraining order (stopping an action or behavior until the litigation is concluded) against the other party.
If the complaint is not dismissed, the parties must continue the litigation process. In some matter, such as family law, it is common for the court to require the disputants to try mediation. If mediation is not successful or not an option, the parties will begin discovery. In this process, the parties give each side the evidence they will be presenting to the court. Parties should give full discovery to the other side so there are no surprises once they are in trial.
Once the trial starts, criminal and civil courts have the same process. Attorney’s for both sides give their opening statements to the court. Then the plaintiff presents his or her case. This involves examining witnesses to prove their arguments. The defense may examine the plaintiff’s witnesses as well. After this process is complete, the plaintiff will rest their case and the defense will go through the same process. After each party has presented their case to the fact finder (the judge or the jury), they will each give closing arguments, the fact finder will then consider the evidence and issue the verdict.
Once the jury or court has issued their decision, the unsuccessful party may appeal. However, if the party does appeal they may not bring up any new evidence or new issues to the appellate court. On appeal, the facts presented may only be the facts that were in evidence at the trial court level. The party may appeal the trial court’s decision due to a misapplication of the law or a legal error committed during the trial. This process is similar for criminal or civil litigation. The specific appellate system may vary depending on the jurisdiction, however, all jurisdictions have a system of appeals and a similar process that parties must abide by.
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