Sometimes, one or more of the parties involved in a legal proceeding find their trial date approaching far more quickly than they feel is reasonable. When this happens, either of the parties may request a continuance, a trial date extension granted by the court. There are numerous reasons why an individual may need to request a continuance. When one is granted, it occurs in the interest of making the upcoming trial fairer, in an effort to pursue a just outcome.
Sometimes, it is not one of the parties involved in a court case that requests a continuance, but the court itself. This could be because a judge or prosecutor is ill, because the evidence provided has been found to be false, or because one or more proper court procedures, such as filing case-related documents by their deadline, have not occurred.
A case may be postponed as many times as the court deems it to be necessary. As long as there is an acceptable reason to grant a continuance, the court may grant it and prolong a legal proceeding.
What Is a Continuance?
A continuance is an extension to the time granted to the parties involved in a legal proceeding before or during their trial. The time that individuals engaged in court cases have to prepare their cases and negotiate deals and settlements is crucial to the court’s ability to reach a just outcome, which is why nearly all legal processes in the United States are governed by specific deadlines.
One example of a legal process bound by specific waiting periods is divorce. For example, a divorcing couple in California cannot finalize their divorce until at least six months have passed since the date their initial divorce petition was submitted to the court. This does not mean the divorce must be finalized within six months. The couple may take longer and may even request one or more continuances to ensure that they both have ample time to gather their financial documents, undergo a child custody evaluation, have their home and other assets appraised, and work with their individual lawyers to reach a divorce settlement that satisfies both parties.
There is no specific length of time a continuance must be. Just like determining whether to grant a continuance, the court has the discretion to approve or deny the requested continuance length. Common lengths of time for case continuances are six to eight months, but it may take longer or shorter, depending on the case. When requesting a continuance, the requesting party asks that the trial or hearing date be postponed for a specific length of time.
Read More: How to Write a Request for Continuance
Civil vs. Criminal Continuances
Criminal law and civil law are two completely separate areas of law, and as such, different rules apply to each of them. Criminal law deals with resolving criminal acts and ensuring justice for the parties involved. When an individual is charged with a crime, the state or federal government is the plaintiff, not another individual.
Conversely, civil law deals with all violations of non-criminal law, such as building violations and violations of anti-discrimination laws like Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. In a civil case, the plaintiff can be an individual, a private company, a nonprofit organization or a government entity.
In a civil continuance, the extra time might be necessary for one of the parties involved to accurately determine the extent of the damages he suffered or, if it’s a high-profile case, to manage the pre-trial publicity he faces related to the case. Criminal continuances may be granted for this reason as well or for reasons such as the sudden appearance of a witness with key testimony to support the prosecution or the defendant.
Greater Reluctance to Grant Continuances in Criminal Cases
Generally, courts are more reluctant to grant continuances in criminal cases than in civil cases because the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution grants individuals facing criminal charges the right to a speedy trial. In a civil case, there is no similar right, as the outcome of a civil case is typically compensation for the injured party, rather than justice for a victim or an accused defendant.
Pursuing a Continuance
Either party involved in a court case may request a continuance. This is done by filing a Motion to Continue with the court. When the court receives a Motion to Continue, it may, at its discretion, approve or deny the motion. Typically, the court approves motions that cite valid reasons for pursuing continuance.
A Motion to Continue has three parts: the Motion, the Memorandum of Points and Authorities and the Declaration. The Motion to Continue is the document signed by the party pursuing the continuance and his lawyer to request the date postponement. The Memorandum of Points and Authorities is the document that outlines the circumstances of the case and the legal reasons why the continuance should be granted. In the Declaration, the individual states all the specific reasons why the case should be postponed.
In many civil cases, both parties are required to agree to the continuance and proposed new court date. This is common in divorce cases. If both parties do not agree to the new court date proposed in the Motion to Continue, the court may hear the motion during the motion hearing, then rule on whether to grant the continuance. If the continuance is granted, the court issues a new date.
Valid Reasons for a Court Date To Be Postponed?
There are lots of reasons why an individual could seek a continuance in his case, and not all of them are what the court would consider to be “good” reasons. A good reason for a trial to be extended is a reason that does not originate from the seeker’s misjudgment or poor diligence. Examples of valid, commonly accepted reasons that courts grant continuances include:
- Crucial case documents have been accidentally destroyed, requiring new copies to be produced.
- The party seeking the continuance or her legal counsel is ill and needs time to recover.
- The judge handling the case is ill and needs time to recover.
- New evidence has been discovered close to the date of the trial.
- The party seeking the continuance has requested a new lawyer.
- A key witness cannot be found and thus, likely will not appear in court as needed.
- A key witness is not available to appear in court on the date of the trial.
- One party delayed in filing the required paperwork, requiring the other party to take more time to prepare a response.
- A related legal action is pending, and its outcome will be helpful to the case.
- A critical step, such as serving the defendant with a summons, was missed.
- In a criminal case, a changed indictment often results in a continuance to grant the defendant sufficient time to prepare.
- A lawyer involved in the case has another legal commitment and needs to fit both into his schedule.
- The venue needs to be changed, because for some reason, it is not possible for the trial to be carried out fairly in its original jurisdiction.
Not all reasons provided for seeking continuances are deemed valid. Although there are many acceptable reasons for a civil court continuance and acceptable reasons for criminal court continuances, the court may deny a Motion to Continue if it determines the reason cited to be invalid.
Provide Proof to Support the Request
When pursuing a continuance, the party requesting the extension typically has to provide proof that the continuance is being sought in good faith. For example, a defendant requesting a continuance because of her poor health may be required to provide a doctor’s note attesting to her current health status and supporting her need to extend the time before her trial.
Approving or Denying a Motion to Continue
When the court receives a Motion to Continue, it must consider many factors about the case when determining whether the motion cites one or more acceptable reasons for a civil court continuance – or a criminal continuance. With a criminal case, the defendant’s right to a speedy trial must always be a consideration, as lengthy continuances can keep a potentially innocent individual in jail for a prolonged period of time.
In fact, some states specify that criminal cases must be tried within a specific time frame. California law states that an individual facing a felony charge must be tried within 60 days of his arraignment unless his attorney can provide a good reason to delay the trial. Cases involving special victims like minors and the elderly must be tried within 30 days of arraignment.
Other issues to consider when determining if the reason provided for seeking a continuance is valid include:
- Will pushing the trial date back actually lead to a more robust case for either side?
- Will granting the continuance potentially make the trial more difficult for the court, such as allowing specific pieces of evidence to degrade?
- Is the continuance being sought in good faith, or is the party seeking it doing so in an attempt to delay the trial?
Dealing With Trial Delay Tactics
Sometimes, individuals involved in court cases attempt to use continuances as trial delay tactics. When wondering, “for what reason can a court date be postponed?” the individual might assume that a court date can be postponed for any reason. However, there are many poor reasons an individual might cite for requesting a continuance, such as:
- The individual booked a vacation overseas and thus cannot make it to the trial or hearing.
- A family member or friend of the individual is ill or injured, but not in critical condition.
- The new evidence she plans to introduce to the case is not relevant or otherwise will not make any measurable difference in her case.
- The individual’s change of counsel will not adequately alter her case.
- The individual is purposely making an effort to delay the case.
- The number of continuances that have already been granted.
Common trial delay tactics include:
- Misplacing or claiming to have misplaced critical documents.
- Changing lawyers without good reason to do so.
- Failing to respond to inquiries.
When gauging whether it is facing acceptable reasons for a civil court continuance or trial delay tactics, the court must consider all the specific facts presented in the Motion to Continue. An overseas vacation could be a valid reason to delay a trial date, but only if the vacation was booked prior to the filer knowing or being able to reasonably estimate his court date. Similarly, a family member’s injury or illness could be a valid reason to grant a continuance, but that, too, depends on a variety of factors. Potential reasons include the seriousness of the illness or injury, how close the individual is to the family member, and how much care the individual is reasonably expected to provide the family member.
No set number of continuances are allowed in a court case. Whether continuances are granted and how many are granted rest entirely upon the discretion of the court.
Lindsay Kramer is a freelance writer and editor who has been working in the legal niche since 2012. Her primary focus areas within this niche are family law and personal injury law. Lindsay works closely with a few legal marketing agencies, providing blog posts, website content and marketing materials to law firms across the United States.