How Courts Work in Civil Cases



Sheila Chrzan
Atlanta Legal Aid Society

Last Revised: July 2004

A civil court case begins with filing a legal action at the office of Clerk of the Court.

Filing means giving legal papers to the Clerk of the Court. The papers become a part of the case.

People usually get a lawyer to do their court work for them. However, each one of us has the right to do our own court work. Only a lawyer is allowed to represent (do court work for) others. Doing your own court work is called pro se (pronounced: pro say) representation.

Taking a problem to court begins with writing a court paper called a complaint or petition.

The complaint/petition tells the court about your case. The complaint usually tells:

1. Who the person is that you are going to court against. This person is called the defendant or respondent;

2. What the defendant/respondent did that brings you to court with a legal action;

3. The law that gives you a right to take legal action against the defendant/respondent;

4. What you want the court to do. This is usually called the prayer or request for relief.

The following steps are what may happen in a court case:

STEP 1: File the Complaint/Petition

A legal action begins when the complaint/petition is filed with the Clerk of Court. When you file the complaint/petition, this is what starts the lawsuit or case in the court. It is often called "suing" the defendant. You file the complaint or petition in the county where the person you are suing lives.

Along with the complaint, the court must be told where to serve (give it a copy of it to) the defendant/respondent. Be ready to give an address and directions for places that are hard to find.

It usually costs money to begin a legal action in court. If you have a low income, however, you should be able to file a case without paying a filing fee. To keep from paying a filing fee, you have to file a written document explaining why you cannot pay. This statement is called an "affidavit of poverty" or an "in forma pauperis affidavit." This document has to be notarized.

"Notarized" means a notary public watches you sign a paper, then certifies that you have signed it. The notary certifies by signing the paper and putting her notary seal on it. A writing is usually notarized to show that by signing you swear you are telling the truth in what is written.

STEP 2: Serve the Complaint on the Defendant

Step 2 is called service of process. The person the legal action is filed against must get notice of the court case. The defendant must get notice of the action filed so that she can fight it in the court.

The best service of process is to directly give the defendant a copy of the complaint. Usually, the Sheriff's or Marshal's Department serves the complaint. There are other ways to serve process, including a legal notice in a newspaper.

Along with the complaint, a summons is served. The Clerk's Office has summons forms and may help you fill in one. The summons tells the defendant how much time there is to answer the complaint.

STEP 3: File the Answer

The defendant must give an ANSWER to the complaint to be able to fight the court case. The summons tells how much time there is to file the answer.

Not filing an answer with the Clerk of Court within the time allowed is called default by the defendant. A defendant usually will lose in court if she defaults instead of filing an answer. Filing an answer begins the defending against a legal action.

The answer of the defendant usually must be written. (In Georgia eviction cases, the answer can be made by the defendant going to the court to tell the clerk what to write.)

The answer should tell what the defendant feels is wrong about the case as stated in the complaint. Anything in the complaint that the answer does not say is wrong can be taken by the court as true

STEP 4: Legal Discovery

In most civil court cases, both the plaintiff and the defendant have the right to find out more than is said in the complaint/petition or the answer. Written court rules tell how the parties (plaintiffs and defendants) can find out more from each other. Finding out more from the other side in a court case is called discovery. The answers can be used in court.

Types of discovery are:

1. Interrogatories: Interrogatories are written questions to the other party. The person to whom interrogatories are given must make written answers within time given by the rules.

2. Request to Produce: A request to produce is a written court paper telling the other party to give things including papers about the case to the other side.

3. Depositions: A deposition is a way to ask questions in person of someone related to/involved in a court case. The questions are not asked in front of a judge. The answers must be given under oath. A court reporter is at a deposition to take down what is said. The court reporter can later write out exactly what was asked and answered at the deposition.

STEP 5: Hearing/Trial

The hearing or trial is held before a judge. The role of the judge is to run the hearing by legal rules. If there is a jury, the jury's role is to decide what facts are proved at the hearing/trial. The judge decides what the law is for the case. If there is no jury, the judge decides the facts as well as the law.

The hearing/trial is the time to hear both sides of the case so a decision can be made as to which side is right. The plaintiff goes first to give her side of the case. Both sides will have people (witnesses) to tell about the case. Each side has the right to ask questions of (cross-examine) the witnesses for the other side.

What witnesses say is evidence in the case. Other evidence can be things which are written and other physical things. The reason to give evidence is to try to prove what is true about the case.

If the plaintiff is trying to get money from the defendant, the plaintiff must prove that money is owed. The plaintiff must also prove how much money is owed.

Either side of a case may want to have a witness who is not willing to come to court. The court has the power to order a witness to come to a hearing. Ask at the clerk's office for a subpoena, an order for someone to go to a hearing. The subpoena must be served (directly given to) the person who is being ordered to go to the hearing.

STEP 6: The Decision

The decision about who wins a court case will be in writing. It will be in the form of a court order. You may not be able to get it the day of the hearing/trial. The decision is filed with the Clerk of Court.

STEP 7: Appeal

The decision of the first court about a case can be appealed by the losing party to a higher court. An appeal is done to try to get a court decision changed. An appeal is in writing and states why it is believed the decision is wrong. Court rules tell the time limit to do an appeal and how to do an appeal.

STEP 8: Collecting Money Won In A Court Case

If a court orders one party to pay money to the other, the court will also help collect the money. You can ask the court clerk for help. There are two main ways to collect: garnishment and lien.

1. Collection by Lien: A lien makes property owned by the loser become the property of the court case winner. A lien would be used to take over the loser's house, car, stocks, or other property.

2. Collection by Garnishment: A garnishment allows the winner in a court case to take money of the loser. There can be garnishment of a bank account or a paycheck.

Some money cannot be garnished: Social Security, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), and other government benefits. If a paycheck is garnished, it cannot all be taken. Federal and state laws cover how much of a paycheck can be taken by garnishment.

For more information please contact the Atlanta Legal Aid Society or Georgia Legal Services Program office nearest you.

For Clayton, Cobb, Dekalb, Fulton, and Gwinnett Counties, call Atlanta Legal Aid Society: 404-524-5811

For all other counties, call Georgia Legal Services Program: 1-800-498-9469 (toll free)

For Seniors age 60 and older, call the Georgia Senior Legal Hotline: 1-888-257-9519 (toll free)

Sheila Chrzan
Atlanta Legal Aid Society
Last Revised: July 2004


Last Review and Update: May 23, 2004