Definition of Civil Court

By J.S. Nogara

A civil court is a court that handles noncriminal legal matters. In other words, it's for someone who has not been accused of violating the law. 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. For example, family courts or surrogate's courts are civil courts. Each court has a particular area of jurisdiction. 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. Other types of civil courts are landlord and tenant courts (sometimes called "housing courts") and small-claims courts. Additionally, the United States Supreme Court is a civil court, with a few narrow exceptions.

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 might be seeking money, also known as damages. Damages are usually the type of relief sought. 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 summons and a complaint by the plaintiff. 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 (usually referred to as a "responsive motion"). At this point, there are various types of motions a defendant can make. Every jurisdiction is different in what can and cannot be filed; thus, it is necessary to consult the particular laws of the jurisdiction and a civil attorney. After the initial phase of the civil case, there might be discovery, which is a fact-finding phase of the case. This part involves obtaining records and interviewing witnesses by depositions in order to obtain evidence to prove or disprove a case. However, the case might also be disposed of by a motion to dismiss. This is when an attorney will present arguments why the case should not be permitted to proceed.

Trial in Civil Court

If a case continues, 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, while other times the case is determined by a jury. The rules are determined by the jurisdiction where the case is held.

Settlement in a Civil Case

Frequently, while a case is pending, the case will be settled by the attorneys 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.

About the Author

J.S. Nogara began writing in 2000, publishing in legal texts, newspapers, newsletters and on various websites. Her credits include updating "New York Practice Guides: Negligence." She is a licensed attorney admitted to the New York State courts and the Federal Court, Southern District in New York. She has a B.S. from the University of Connecticut, a J.D. and an LL.M. degree.

Cite this Article A tool to create a citation to reference this article Cite this Article