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What Happens at a Civil Court Hearing?

By Michelle Nati - Updated January 23, 2019
Judge gavel in court

Civil cases involve disputes between two parties and can cover a variety of legal issues, some of which include debt, divorce, injury or eviction. A civil case begins when a plaintiff, the person filing the complaint, then serves or delivers, the complaint to the defendant, the person or company receiving the claim or charge.

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In a civil court hearing, the plaintiff asks for relief from the court in the form of monetary compensation, intervention or a declaration of the plaintiff's legal rights as a result of harm caused by the actions of the defendant.

What Comprises a Civil Court Complaint

The complaint brought to the court by the plaintiff is basically a description of how the defendant has damaged the plaintiff. It asks the court for relief in the form of monetary restitution, intervention or a declaration of the plaintiff's legal rights.

When filing a complaint, the plaintiff pays the fee required by the court, but he can also declare "forma pauperis," or indigence. This means that if the plaintiff can't pay, the court will agree to waive the fee and the case can proceed.

The Purpose of a Pretrial Hearing

There is often a pretrial hearing, which is a meeting between the plaintiff, the defendant, their lawyers, the judge and possible additional parties. The goal of the hearing is to resolve less pressing issues between the parties before the trial begins. This can involve eliminating frivolous claims, identifying documents and witnesses, gathering admissions of guilt or liability, discussing motions and briefs, and determining the possibility of a settlement.

Resolving a Civil Case Without a Trial

Some civil cases never make it to a jury trial. Instead, the litigants, their attorneys and the judge meet to resolve the dispute quickly and save the expense of a costly trial. This can happen in the following ways:

  • Settlement: A resolution between disputing parties reached before a trial begins. Either party can attempt to settle at any point during the litigation and, often, the court assists in this type of resolution.
  • Mediation: Sometimes a neutral third party, or mediator, helps the litigants reach a decision. Both parties must have a hand in selecting the mediator, or the court might appoint someone. The mediator meets privately with each side to discuss to facts of the case. He can't force either party into reaching an agreement, but he can advise the litigants on their arguments and how the outcome of the case will affect them.
  • Arbitration: Like a mediator, an arbitrator is a neutral third party called in to help resolve a case before it goes to trial. An arbitrator listens as both parties argue their claims and present their evidence. The arbitrator then decides which party wins based on that evidence. For litigants with smaller disputes, a court might suggest that the litigants seek the help of an arbitrator before embarking on a costly and time-consuming trial.

If litigants can't agree using these alternatives, the civil case then proceeds to trial.

What Happens in a Civil Trial

When a case goes to trial, the plaintiff argues a claim against the defendant who, in turn, can refute it. A judge and jury will examine the evidence presented by both parties and decide if the defendant is liable for the charges brought by the plaintiff.

Both parties call their witnesses to the stand for direct examination during the trial. Then the plaintiff and the defendant have a chance to question, or "cross-examine" the witnesses of the opposition. After cross-examination, both the plaintiff and defendant can, once again, question witnesses to counter the effects of cross-examination.

If the jury finds that the defendant is responsible for the charges brought by the plaintiff, the next step is deciding what restitution the plaintiff should be granted. Damages awarded to the plaintiff come in various forms based on the type of civil case that's being heard. Restitution in a civil case can include money, intervention by the court to keep one party away from the other, or a custody decision.

Some trials might not have a jury. These are referred to as bench trials. The judge will solely make a decision on the case, and this is called a bench verdict.

Appealing the Court's Decision

If the plaintiff or defendant doesn't agree with the court's ruling, either party can ask an appellate court to review the decision. This is known as an appeal.

The appeals court will hear arguments from both parties and review a record of what happened during the trial. An appellate court generally does not override a jury's decision from the earlier hearing. Instead, it looks for legal errors during that time and announces its decision with an opinion document. If there were no legal errors found, the appellate court affirms the verdict from the earlier trial and it stands. However, the appellate court can reverse the court's decision and order a new trial if it finds that legal errors were made.

About the Author

Michelle Nati is an associate editor and writer who has reported on legal, criminal and government news for PasadenaNow.com and Complex Media. She holds a B.A. in Communications and English from Niagara University.

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