A civil court is a court that handles noncriminal legal matters. In other words, it's for someone who has not been accused of committing a crime and charged by the state or federal government for purposes of punishment. Rather, it's where private individuals or entities sue one another for either money or some other type of relief.
Types of Civil Courts
The term "civil court" encompasses various subcategories of courts; it means any court that is not criminal court. For example, family courts or surrogate's courts are civil courts. Bankruptcy court is also civil court.
Each court has a particular area of jurisdiction. Courts of general jurisdiction, also called trial courts (that is, courts that hear criminal cases but also a variety of civil cases, such as breach of contract or personal injury cases) may be called different things depending upon your state. For example, the courts of general jurisdiction in New Jersey are called superior courts, while in Michigan, they're called circuit courts. In federal court, the trial courts are called district courts.
A family court will probably hear cases involving divorce, child support and custody and guardianship, while a surrogate's court will handle trusts and estate matters. Bankruptcy courts hear bankruptcy cases.
Other types of civil courts are landlord and tenant courts (sometimes called "housing courts") and small-claims courts. Some states have special courts called chancery or equity courts. Additionally, the United States Supreme Court reviews both civil and criminal matters.
Types of Relief Sought
In the civil court, the party suing another party is called the plaintiff, and the party being sued is the defendant. The plaintiff seeks recovery of damages. Damages are usually the type of relief sought; often, the damages are money. However, the plaintiff might also be seeking to have a defendant take a particular course of action or stop doing something in particular. For example, a plaintiff might want a defendant to clean up his property or stop causing a nuisance by making loud noises. In such an instance, the relief is referred to as "equitable" relief.
What Happens in a Civil Case
A civil case is started by filing a complaint by the plaintiff; the court will then issue a summons. The summons and complaint must be served upon the defendant. In other words, the defendant receives notice of the lawsuit, the allegations against the defendant and the type of relief sought. Once the defendant is served, the defendant has a certain amount of time to file a response (either an answer or a motion to dismiss the case, in most states).
Every jurisdiction is different in what can and cannot be filed in response to a complaint; thus, it is necessary to consult the particular laws of the jurisdiction and a civil attorney. If a motion to dismiss is filed, the court will hear it; if it's granted, the case will be dismissed. If the motion is denied, the court will give the defendant a certain amount of time to file an answer.
After the defendant answers the complaint, discovery begins, which is a fact-finding phase of the case. Discovery involves obtaining records and interviewing witnesses by depositions in order to obtain evidence to prove or disprove a case.
Trial in Civil Court
If a case continues past discovery, a trial might occur. At a trial, the plaintiff and defendant have an opportunity to present their cases. Evidence might be submitted and witnesses might testify. Thereafter, a determination is made. Sometimes the case is determined by a judge (called a "bench trial"), while other times the case is determined by a jury. Individuals have the right to request a jury; however, if the case involves a contract and the contract says everyone agrees the right to a jury trial is waived (a jury waiver), the trial will be a bench trial.
Settlement in a Civil Case
Frequently, while a case is pending, the case will be settled by the parties without proceeding to trial. In such an instance, the plaintiff and defendant will sign a settlement agreement, which is a voluntary action outlining what the plaintiff and defendant will or will not do in order to resolve the matter out of court. Many cases settle so the parties can avoid trial, as trial can be expensive.