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Litigation is the act of bringing a case to court to settle a dispute. The term describes the actual legal process where parties argue their case against each other in our court system. Parties in a case involved are called litigants. Each party assembles its argument supported by findings and facts. Litigants, usually called plaintiff and defendant, utilize the discovery process and other court procedures to build their case before trying it in front of a judge or jury.

Types of Legal Cases

There are generally two types of legal cases. Criminal cases involve a charge prosecuted by a governmental body, seeking punishment for the violation of a criminal statute. Civil cases, meanwhile, involve private disputes between individuals where damages or some other remedy is requested.

There are many circumstances that can lead to a lawsuit, running the gambit from being injured, to having a dispute with a business. While filing a lawsuit is not a decision to take lightly, it sometimes can be the best (or only) avenue to resolve a dispute.

No matter the reason, going to court can be an intimidating experience. But knowing more about how courts work can go a long way toward alleviating the stress involved.

The Litigation Process: From Filing to Trial

Before a lawsuit is filed, the plaintiff typically demands that the defendant perform certain actions that will resolve the conflict. If the demand is refused or ignored, the plaintiff may start a lawsuit by filing a complaint in court and serving copies of it and a summons on the defendant. The complaint must state facts and the law showing the alleged injuries and attribute them to the defendant, and request money damages or equitable relief.

If the case doesn't settle early on, the discovery process begins. The plaintiff sends the defendant written questions seeking information involving the dispute. The parties may depose (interview under oath) each other concerning the issues. The parties may request copies of documents for review, or ask to test or examine other types of physical evidence. The discovery process can last weeks or years, depending on the complexity of the case and the level of cooperation between the parties.

At trial both sides can introduce evidence that will help to prove to the jury or the judge the truth of their positions. Once a final decision has been made at the trial court, the losing party may appeal the decision within a specified period of time. The federal and state courts have courts of appeal that hear most civil appeals.

As you can see, litigation can be a complex, time-consuming process. More often than not, cases settle before trial. This is because the process can be too costly and the uncertainty too great for some litigants.

A qualified litigator (also called a trial attorney) is crucial for almost all litigation. The attorney will have trial experience and know how to negotiate and manage the litigation process for clients. There are many kinds of litigators specializing in a wide variety of areas of law, ranging from real estate to family to employment law. That is why it's vital you consult with an experienced litigator who has experience handling the specific kinds of issues you are facing.

FindLaw's "Lawsuits and Lawyers" section can help you decide whether you should sue and when you need a lawyer. This section has helpful articles on topics ranging from whether there is a time limit on filing a lawsuit, to what to expect during a lawsuit. You can also find some answers to frequently asked questions, and resources explaining the legal system, small claims cases, and more.

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