California Rules of Court: Definition and Uses

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If you have a general impression that court proceedings are complex, this will be confirmed with just a single glance at the California Rules of Court. Court Rules provide guidelines for attorneys and parties about how to conduct court business. They regulate everything from time limitations to the types of documents you are allowed to file. To complicate matters further, California has general Rules of Court that apply across the state court system, but each county court has its own local rules that are important to follow as well. You'll also find different sets of applicable rules at every level of the judiciary, from superior court to the state Supreme Court to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Promulgating California Rules of Court

Rules of court are made by both the legislature and the court system. The California court system was largely established by state statutes, which lay the groundwork for court procedure as well. Laws promulgated by the state legislature outline the authority and jurisdiction of the courts as well as set out basic procedural matters. These statutes also give the courts authority to adopt additional rules that define more detailed procedures and court processes. California courts issue proposed rules that are then reviewed by the legislature. If the legislature votes them down, they are void. If the rules are adapted according to law, they have the same legal effect as statutory law.

But the many terms used for court rules don't make it easy to identify them. Sometimes, rules are called "rules of court," and other times they are referred to as "rules of procedure." Further, these terms are used to include both law-based codes (set up by statutes) and rules developed by the court system itself. Some California rules apply to all types of state courts, while others apply to one level of the judiciary, and some are specific to a particular county's courts. Anyone trying to navigate the California Rules of Court needs to keep in mind these intricacies.

The easiest way to navigate the state's Rules of Court is to look through the index to the Rules, or do a search for the particular subject. Here is a selection of the Rules that anyone heading to court needs to know.

California Rule of Court 2.550

In most cases, records filed in a court action are public. That means that anyone can walk into the court clerk's office and view the files in almost any legal case, and some can also be viewed online. But sometimes the records must be kept out of the public view. Rules 2.550 through 2.551 of the California Rules of Court discuss when records can be sealed (and kept confidential) by the court and how a party can propose that they be sealed.

A record, in this context, means any part of a document or transcript that is filed with the court. Obviously, this rule about sealing records doesn't apply to documents that the law already requires be kept confidential. It doesn't apply to discovery motions either, papers in which the parties seek to get evidence from each other. Under the Court Rules, the court can file a record under seal only after making findings that there is an overriding interest in confidentiality that overcomes the right of public access. The rules also require that a court order sealing any records has to specifically state the factual basis for these findings. Courts cannot seal records based just on the parties' arguments or because the parties have agreed they should be sealed.

The procedure for asking a court to seal a record is found in Rule of Court 2.551(b). The proposed sealed record must, according to the Rule, be lodged in an envelope until the motion is decided. When might sealing a record be appropriate? Courts have sealed records in employment disputes as well as disputes involving trade secrets or private personal relationships.

California Rules of Court 3.1200

Rule 3.1200 through Rule 3.1207 of the California Rules of Court regulate ex parte motions in California superior court. What is ex parte relief? Ex parte means "one side only" in Latin. It refers to a request you make to the court that is determined on an urgent basis without the regular notice being given the other side, or time for the other side to file opposing papers. If you are ready to make an ex parte motion, you'll need to read, understand and apply these rules. Even though the ex parte concept can be difficult to understand, the rules about ex parte motions are direct and straightforward.

Basically, once you determine that you need emergency help from the court, you can apply to the court and be heard in less than 24 hours. To make an ex parte application, you must do two things. The first is to tell the other parties about the motion's subject, as well as where and when you will ask for the relief. You have to tell them by 10 a.m. the day before you apply. Next you have to put together the application package, including the request, a memorandum setting out applicable law and the facts relevant to the request and a declaration that you have given the required notice to the other parties. Make the application as clear and short as possible. The document tells the court exactly what you want the court to order, the legal authority behind it, and why you had to file ex parte.

And be sure to check with local rules before you go in. The California Rules of Court generally apply to all superior courts, but each county and even individual judges have their own local rules that you have to follow in addition to the requirements of the Rules of Court. For example, some superior courts require you to file the ex parte application just after you give notice to the other parties the day before. Others require that you call the court to get a reserved slot for the application. Look online on the court's website or call ahead to learn the local rules.

California Rules of Court 3.1332

Sometimes things don't fall into place when you hope they will and you just aren't ready for a motion or a trial that has already been scheduled. Can you ask the court to set a different, later date? You can, and you'll find the appropriate procedure listed in Rule 3.1332 of the California Rules of Court. This rule gives the court authority to grant a delay, termed a "continuance," before or during a trial. The person seeking the delay has to show good cause for the delay and jump through some procedural hoops.

Let's talk first about good cause. What might constitute good cause to delay a trial? The court must consider each request for a continuance on its own merits, but a motion to continue a trial might be granted on a showing that a critical witness isn't available at the time the trial is currently scheduled. Other examples of good cause set out in the rules include a party's illness or death, but also any significant, unanticipated change in the status of the case that makes it not yet ready for trial.

Needless to say, delaying a trial screws up the court calendar, so these motions to continue aren't favored by the courts. That means you do well to make this kind of motion as early as you know that it will be necessary. The more times a trial has been continued, the less likely you are to win another one.

Under the Rules of Court, you have to ask for a continuance through a motion. You won't find a Judicial Council form to use. You need to draft the document yourself, including each of five sections of a motion: the Notice of Motion; the Motion; the Points and Authorities; the Declaration; and the [Proposed] Order. Many counties allow you to combine the Notice and Motion into one document, but the Order must always remain a separate document.

California Rules of Court 3.724 to 3.725

Rules 3.724 and 3.725 are intended to ensure that attorneys and parties are prepared for a case before everybody jumps right in. These rules concern the case management conference, a meeting at the beginning of the case between both sides and the judge to discuss how the case will be handled. Rule 3.725 says that every party must file a case management statement at least 15 days before the date of the conference. The rule is quite precise about what information the statement must contain.

Rule 3.724 requires that the parties or their attorneys get together before the case to "meet and confer." This means that they have to talk about certain issues, including setting a schedule for exchanging evidence, identifying any motions that they intend to file, identifying those parts of the case that are not disputed and those that are in dispute, identifying dates on which the parties or attorneys are unavailable for court, and any settlement possibilities.

California Rules of Court 3.810 to 3.830

Arbitration is an alternative to court. But the procedures for court-ordered arbitration, also called judicial arbitration, are covered under the California Rules of Court, as well.

The laws require the court to send certain civil cases to arbitration, an informal procedure where a neutral party hears the arguments both sides offer and makes a decision. Although certain types of private arbitration are binding, judicial arbitration is not binding. Either party can reject the arbitration decision, but if both parties accept the ruling, the case stops there. The intention of the program is to reduce trial court congestion. It also encourages settlement of a case once the parties find out how the arguments play to a neutral person.

Unlike private arbitration, judicial arbitration is not something parties agree to in advance. The court may order it whether or not the parties agree. And, while private arbitration provides a decision by the arbitrator that is final and never reviewed by the court, in judicial arbitration, the decision is binding only if the parties accept it. Either party to a judicial arbitration can request a new trial before a judge that takes place "de novo," as if the arbitration had never happened.

The Rules of Court set out the rules for preparing a case for arbitration as well as presenting a case in arbitration. Under the rules, the neutral arbitrator has to be a member of the California State Bar or else a retired judge or court commissioner. Some private arbitration proceedings do not include the right to obtain evidence from the other side, but this is not the case in judicial arbitration. The Rules of Court about judicial arbitration allow for full and complete discovery.

Note that, under the Rules of Court, a judicial arbitration is applicable only to specific types of cases in certain courts in California. The rules apply to civil cases where the amount in dispute is $50,000 or less. They apply only in superior courts with 18 judges or less. However, small claims cases or appeals are exempted from judicial arbitration.