Definition of Litigation and Appeals
Litigation is the process of going to court to argue your case. The case could be criminal, in which the state argues that a citizen violated the law, or civil, in which two citizens or businesses argue against each other. Within each of these categories there are several other smaller courts. For example, criminal cases about traffic violations or youthful offenders have their own courts, and civil cases relating to housing, family, and bankruptcy often have their own courts. Some litigation also takes place in administrative courts, such as the IRS's tax court or the Executive Office of Immigration Review's immigration court.
Although exact procedures vary by court and by state, most trials follow a similar pattern. One side, known as the "plaintiff," "complainant," or "prosecution," files a complaint listing out all of ways the other party broke the law. The other party responds by admitting or denying the items in the complaint. Then there is an investigative period known as discovery, in which both parties investigate the facts of the case. The parties will attempt to resolve their issues many times over these initial stages, but if these attempts are unsuccessful, the case will go to trial. A judge will preside over the trial to ensure that the law is interpreted accurately and that each side follows procedure. Sometimes the judge will also decide the facts of the case, but sometimes that task is left to a jury.
If either party believes that the judge made an error in her interpretation of the law or procedure, that party can appeal the case to an appellate court, which will then review the judge's decisions for accuracy. When the appellate court judges find an error, they will often send the case back to the trial court for correction.
Terms to Know
- Objection: Strict rules govern which evidence may be considered in a court room. An objection is a challenge to the other party's evidence.
- Voir Dire: A process for selecting a jury in which potential jurors are interviewed.
- Plaintiff/Complainant: The party who filed the initial complaint in a courtroom proceeding.
- Defendant: The party against whom the plaintiff filed suit.
- Petitioner: The party that appealed a court's decision.
- Respondent: The party who must respond to an appeal.
- Discovery: The period of trial in which both parties investigate the case.
- Deposition: An interview conducted out of court in which lawyers question potential witnesses. The witnesses' answers are officially recorded, and the transcript may become evidence later on.
Practice Area Notes
Litigation is a broad area of the law. Simply because a lawyer lists "litigation" among her practice areas does not necessarily mean she is familiar with your particular area. For example, an attorney who litigates criminal cases is unlikely to be able to assist with a medical malpractice case. If you think you have an issue that you may need to take to court, such as a real estate dispute, it may be more useful to look for real estate attorneys that also practice litigation, rather than litigators.
Since any kind of case can go to court, litigation is related to every practice area. Even lawyers who do not directly practice litigation law, such as contract and corporate attorneys, read about the latest decisions to ensure their clients continue to follow the law.
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