The Civil Litigation Process for Beginners

Litigation Timeline - Pre-Litigation Pleadings Discovery Motion Practice Pretrial Conference Post-trial Motions Trial Decision and Judgment Appeals

Civil litigation can be short and simple, long and complex, or somewhere in between. The civil litigation timeline can vary depending on the complexity of the case, the number of parties involved, and the court in which the case is filed. However, a general timeline for civil litigation may include the following stages:

Pre-litigation: This stage involves the parties attempting to resolve the dispute through informal negotiations or alternative dispute resolution (ADR) methods such as mediation or arbitration.

Pleadings: If negotiations fail, the plaintiff files a complaint with the court and serves it on the defendant. The defendant then files a response to the complaint.

Discovery: This stage involves both parties exchanging information and evidence related to the case, such as documents, witness statements, and expert reports. This stage can be time-consuming and can take several months to complete.

Motion practice: Either party may file motions with the court, such as motions to dismiss or motions for summary judgment, which can result in a decision by the court before trial.

Pretrial conference: The court may hold a conference with the parties to discuss the status of the case, any pending motions, and to encourage settlement.

Trial: If the case is not resolved before trial, the case will proceed to trial, which can take several days or weeks, depending on the complexity of the case.

Post-trial motions: After the trial, either party may file post-trial motions, such as motions for a new trial or motions to set aside the verdict.

Decision and Judgment: A decision and judgment is a ruling made by a court in a legal case that determines the outcome of the case and often includes an order for one party to pay damages or take specific actions.

Appeals: Either party may appeal the decision to a higher court, which can take several months or even years.

Overall, the civil litigation timeline can range from several months to several years, depending on the complexity of the case and the court in which it is filed. It is important for parties to be prepared for a potentially long and complex process and to have realistic expectations about the timeline for resolution.


Pre-litigation refers to the phase of a legal dispute that occurs before a lawsuit is filed. During this phase, parties involved in a dispute may attempt to resolve the issue through negotiation, mediation, or other means of alternative dispute resolution. The pre-litigation phase may also involve serving demand letters or predicate notices, gathering evidence and evaluating legal claims to determine whether litigation is necessary or appropriate. The goal of pre-litigation is often to avoid the expense and time associated with a formal legal proceeding and to reach a resolution that is satisfactory to all parties involved.


Legal pleadings are written documents filed with a court or administrative agency that set out the parties’ respective claims, defenses, and legal arguments. Pleadings are an essential part of the legal process and are used to initiate a case, present legal arguments, and resolve disputes. They serve as a roadmap for the court and the parties, outlining the issues to be resolved and the evidence to be presented. The most common types of legal pleadings are complaints, petitioners, answers, counterclaims, and motions. Each of these pleadings serves a specific purpose in the legal process.


A complaint is a legal pleading filed by the plaintiff, the person or entity bringing a lawsuit, that outlines the plaintiff’s allegations against the defendant. The complaint typically includes a statement of the facts that support the plaintiff’s claims, a legal argument supporting the claims, and a request for relief, such as damages or an injunction.


An answer is a legal pleading filed by the defendant in response to the complaint (see CPLR 3011). The answer typically admits or denies the plaintiff’s allegations and may include affirmative defenses, which are legal arguments that, if proven, would excuse the defendant’s conduct. The answer functions to disclose the issues to the other party and to the court and to show why the plaintiff is not entitled to judgment. The answer may also assert cross-claims or counterclaims. 


A counterclaim is a legal pleading filed by the defendant that asserts a claim against the plaintiff. The counterclaim may arise out of the same facts as the plaintiff’s claim or may be based on different facts. The plaintiff must then respond to the counterclaim in a separate pleading called a reply (a type of answer).

Other Pleading

In addition to the initial pleadings, parties may file additional pleadings as the case progresses. For example, a plaintiff may file an amended complaint to add new claims or parties, or file a third-party complaint against a new party.

Form and Format

Legal pleadings must comply with specific rules of procedure and format. They must be filed with the court within a specific time frame and must be served on the other party or parties to the case. Failure to comply with these rules can result in a party losing the ability to make certain arguments. Further, failure to object to factual assertion may result in waiving your right to contest those facts. By following the rules of procedure and format, parties can ensure that their pleadings are effective and persuasive, and that they can present their case in the most compelling way possible.


Legal discovery is the process by which parties to a legal case obtain information and evidence from each other in preparation for trial. Discovery is an essential part of the legal process and allows each party to learn about the other party’s case and build their own case based on the evidence obtained. Discovery is necessary where there are questions of fact. In most cases a party is entitled to discovery, however, certain litigation’s such as summary proceedings it is not guaranteed. Further, if there are no questions of fact, a party may file a motion for summary judgment to end the litigation early.

Discovery can take many forms, including written interrogatories, document requests, depositions, and requests for admissions. Each of these forms of discovery is designed to obtain different types of information or evidence.


Written interrogatories are written questions submitted by one party to the other party, which must be answered in writing under oath. Interrogatories are typically used to obtain basic information, such as the other party’s identity, contact information, and background.

Requests to Produce

Document requests are requests for specific documents or types of documents relevant to the case. For example, a plaintiff in a personal injury case may request medical records and bills related to the injury, or a defendant in a breach of contract case may request copies of contracts and correspondence related to the dispute.


Depositions are oral statements made under oath in the presence of a court reporter. Depositions are typically conducted in person, but can also be conducted over video conferencing or telephonically. During a deposition, one party’s attorney asks the other party or a witness questions under oath. Depositions are used to obtain testimony from witnesses and to lock in their version of events.

Requests for Admission

Requests for admissions are written statements submitted by one party to the other party, which must be admitted or denied in writing under oath. Requests for admissions are typically used to narrow the issues in dispute by asking the other party to admit to certain facts or legal conclusions.


In the legal system, a motion is a formal request made to a judge or court for a specific ruling or order on a particular issue related to a case. Motions can be made by either party in a case, and they can request a wide range of actions or rulings from the court.

Some common types of motions include motions to dismiss, motions for summary judgment, motions for injunctive relief, and motions to in limine.

Motion to Dismiss

Motion to dismiss: A motion to dismiss is filed by the defendant, requesting that the court dismiss the case based on various legal grounds, such as lack of jurisdiction, insufficient evidence, or failure to state a claim which the Court can grant relief.

Motion for Summary Judgment

Motion for summary judgment: A motion for summary judgment is filed by either party, requesting that the court issue a judgment in their favor based on the evidence presented so far, without going to trial. A motion for summary judgment requires there to be no question of fact.

Motion for Injunctive Relief

Motion for injunctive relief: A motion for injunctive relief is filed by either party, requesting that the court issue an order to stop or prevent certain actions by the other party.

Other Motions

Other types of legal motions can include motions to compel discovery, motions for a protective order, and motions for reconsideration. Motions must be filed with the court, and they typically require a written brief that lays out the legal arguments and evidence supporting the motion. The opposing party will have the opportunity to respond to the motion, and the court may hold a hearing or issue a ruling based on the written briefs.

Overall, by making motions, parties can seek to narrow the issues in dispute, exclude evidence that might be harmful to their case, or obtain a judgment in their favor without the need for a trial.

Documents Included in Motions

Motion typically include legal briefs (memorandum of law), affidavits, affirmations, and exhibits are four important legal documents that serve different purposes.

Legal Briefs

Legal briefs are written documents that are submitted to a court, usually by attorneys representing a party in a case. Legal briefs are designed to persuade the court to rule in favor of the party submitting the brief. They typically contain legal arguments, citations to relevant cases or statutes, and supporting evidence. Legal briefs can be filed at various stages of a case, including before trial, during trial, and on appeal.


Affidavits are written statements made under oath and signed in the presence of a notary or other authorized official. Affidavits are often used in legal proceedings to present evidence, such as statements from witnesses or other parties involved in a case. The person making the affidavit, known as the affiant, swears that the statements in the affidavit are true to the best of their knowledge and belief. Affidavits can be used to support or oppose a motion, to supplement evidence presented at trial, or to provide evidence in other legal proceedings.


Affirmations are similar to affidavits but are made by attorneys.


An exhibit is a document or physical object that is presented as evidence in a trial or hearing. Exhibits can take many forms, such as documents, photographs, diagrams, charts, contracts, emails, and other written or visual materials. The purpose of a exhibit is to help the trier of fact, such as a judge or jury, understand the facts of a case and make a decision based on the evidence presented.

Exhibits are typically introduced by a party in a case through a witness who can testify to the authenticity and relevance of the exhibit. The exhibit is then marked for identification and entered into evidence. The opposing party may object to the admission of an exhibit if they believe it is not relevant, authentic, or admissible under the rules of evidence.

Exhibits can be used to support or contradict witness testimony, establish the sequence of events, provide context for other evidence, or demonstrate the nature of a physical object or location. For example, in a personal injury case, medical records and x-rays may be introduced as legal exhibits to show the extent of the plaintiff’s injuries. In a contract dispute, the contract itself may be introduced as a legal exhibit to show the terms of the agreement.

Exhibits are an important part of the trial process, as they provide a way to present and evaluate evidence in a systematic and organized manner. They can be used to clarify complex issues, challenge witness testimony, and help the trier of fact understand the evidence presented. Legal exhibits must be properly authenticated and admitted under the rules of evidence, and their relevance and weight as evidence will be evaluated by the trier of fact.


A trial is a formal court proceeding in which parties present evidence and arguments to a trier of fact (usually a judge or jury) in order to resolve a dispute. The purpose of a trial is to determine the facts of a case and apply the relevant law to those facts in order to reach a verdict or decision.

Trials can take place in criminal and civil cases. In a criminal trial, the government (represented by a prosecutor) brings charges against a defendant accused of violating a criminal law. In a civil trial, one party (the plaintiff or petitioner) brings a lawsuit against another party (the defendant or respondent) seeking a legal remedy, such as damages or an injunction.

The process of a trial typically begins with jury selection (in a jury trial), followed by opening statements from both sides, the presentation of evidence through witness testimony and exhibits, cross-examination of witnesses, closing arguments, and the instructions from the judge to the jury (in a jury trial). After the closing arguments, the trier of fact (judge or jury) will deliberate and reach a verdict.

During a trial, each side presents evidence to support their case, such as testimony from witnesses, documents, and physical evidence. The judge ensures that the evidence presented is relevant, admissible, and meets the legal standards required for that type of evidence. The parties may also make legal arguments to the judge regarding the application of the law to the facts of the case.

Trials can be complex and time-consuming, often taking weeks or even months to complete. However, they are an important part of the legal system, as they provide an opportunity for parties to have their case heard by an impartial trier of fact and to receive a resolution to their dispute.

In summary, a legal trial is a formal court proceeding in which parties present evidence and arguments to a trier of fact in order to resolve a dispute.

What is the Trier of Fact?

A trier of fact is a person or group of people responsible for determining the facts of a case and making a decision based on those facts. The trier of fact is typically a judge or jury, depending on the type of case and the court in which it is heard.

In a trial, the trier of fact listens to the evidence presented by both sides and decides which facts are true and which are not. This decision is based on the credibility of witnesses, the weight of the evidence, and the application of the relevant law to the facts of the case. The trier of fact then applies the law to the facts to reach a verdict or decision.

The trier of fact is responsible for making a fair and impartial decision based solely on the evidence presented in court. The judge or jury must not be influenced by personal biases or prejudices, and must apply the law in a neutral and objective manner.

In a jury trial, the jury is selected from a pool of potential jurors and is instructed on the law by the judge. The jury then hears the evidence presented by both sides, deliberates in private, and reaches a verdict. In a non-jury trial, the judge acts as the trier of fact and makes the decision based on the evidence presented in court.

In summary, the trier of fact is responsible for determining the facts of a case and making a decision based on those facts.

What is a Jury Trial?

A jury trial is a trial in which a group of ordinary citizens, known as a jury, are responsible for determining the facts of a case and reaching a verdict. The jury is selected from a pool of potential jurors, and the parties in the case have the opportunity to question and select jurors through a process called voir dire.

During a jury trial, the judge presides over the proceedings and ensures that the trial is conducted according to the rules of law. The lawyers for each party present evidence, examine witnesses, and make legal arguments to the jury. The jury is responsible for deciding the outcome of the case based on the evidence presented and the instructions given to them by the judge.

What is a Bench Trial?

A bench trial is a trial in which a judge, rather than a jury, is responsible for deciding the outcome of a case. In a bench trial, the judge is responsible for both determining the facts of the case and applying the law to those facts in order to reach a decision.

Bench trials are typically used in cases where there is no right to a jury trial, or where the parties agree to waive their right to a jury trial. They are also sometimes used in cases where a jury trial would be impractical or inefficient, such as cases involving complex legal issues or technical evidence.

During a bench trial, the judge presides over the proceedings and hears evidence and arguments from both sides. The judge is responsible for making rulings on legal issues, such as the admissibility of evidence, and for evaluating the credibility and weight of the evidence presented. After considering all of the evidence and legal arguments, the judge will make a decision on the case.

One advantage of a bench trial is that it can be less time-consuming and costly than a jury trial, as there is no need to select and empanel a jury, and the trial can proceed more quickly. Another advantage is that the decision is made by a legal professional who is trained in applying the law to the facts, and who is not subject to the biases and emotions that can sometimes influence a jury.

However, a disadvantage of a bench trial is that there is no opportunity for the parties to have their case heard and decided by a group of their peers. Additionally, the decision in a bench trial is made by a single person, and there is no opportunity for a diverse range of perspectives and experiences to be brought to bear on the decision-making process.

Decision and Judgment

A decision and a judgment refer to two types of documents issued by a judge.


A decision is the ruling or conclusion made by a judge or other decision-maker in a case. It is the result of a process of evaluating the evidence and arguments presented in a case, and applying the relevant laws or legal principles. For example, a decision may be made on a motion to dismiss a case, a motion for summary judgment, or after a trial.


A judgment, on the other hand, is the final determination of a case by a court or other decision-maker. It is a written order or ruling that sets out the decision made in the case, and may include specific instructions or requirements for the parties involved. For example, a judgment may order one party to pay damages to another party, or may grant specific relief such as an injunction or a declaratory judgment.


In most cases, a judgment follows a decision or they are issued simultaneously. After a decision is made, the court will issue a judgment that sets out the final outcome of the case. The judgment is usually binding on the parties involved, and can be enforced through various legal mechanisms such as wage garnishment or property liens.


An appeal in a lawsuit is the legal process in which a higher court reviews the decision made by a lower court. An appeal may be filed by one or both parties in a case who are not satisfied with the lower court’s decision. The party who files the appeal is called the appellant, while the opposing party is called the appellee.

During an appeal, the higher court reviews the lower court’s decision and examines the evidence and arguments presented by both parties during the trial. The appellate court will only consider the evidence that was presented to the lower court and will not consider any new evidence. The appeal is not a new trial, but rather a review of the lower court’s decision and the legal process that was followed during the trial.

In an appeal, the appellant usually argues that the lower court made a legal error or misapplied the law. The appellant will typically present written briefs and may have the opportunity to make oral arguments before the higher court. The appellee may also file a brief and present oral arguments to defend the lower court’s decision.

After considering the arguments presented by both parties, the higher court will issue a decision either affirming or reversing the lower court’s decision. If the decision is reversed, the case may be remanded, or sent back, to the lower court for a new trial or for further proceedings consistent with the higher court’s decision.

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