Civil litigation is a formal judicial process whereby disputes between two parties are resolved through the court system. Each country has its own set of rules proscribed for the initiation, as well as the conclusion, of the civil litigation process. In the United States, there are formal and exhaustive rules of civil procedure that govern the conduct of litigation, from the initial stages up to and including a trial. Most jurisdictions in the United States have, over time, revised the rules of civil procedure, in whole or in part, to be in accord with the federal rules.
A party who initiates a civil action by filing a complaint in court is designated as a plaintiff. The party against whom the complaint is filed is called the defendant. The complaint is a plain statement that describes the dispute, and it usually contains a request for money damages. It must be served on the defendant by a sheriff or other individual authorized by law. Upon receipt, the defendant must answer the complaint within a specified period, which is usually 21 days after service.
After the defendant files his answer to the complaint, the discovery phase of the civil litigation process begins. The discovery rules are designed to help delineate the material issues in the dispute prior to trial, so that a trial is conducted on the merits of the case — and is free from undue surprises and theatrics. Discovery procedures are conducted under court supervision and allow the parties to exchange relevant documents, as well as take the depositions of other parties and witnesses. Once discovery is concluded, a pre-trial conference is usually scheduled by the court to resolve any outstanding issues. If settlement of the matter appears unlikely, this meeting may be used to schedule a date for trial.
In the United States, an integral aspect of the civil litigation process consists of making requests to the court for specific relief, the granting of which may shape, and have a determinative outcome of, the pending litigation. These motions may range from seeking to dismiss a complaint for failure to state a bona fide claim, to asking the court to compel a recalcitrant party to produce relevant documents in discovery. The legal standards for granting the specific relief requested are enumerated in detail in each of the applicable rules. Due to the fact that numerous motions can be made by either party prior to trial, the civil litigation process often can be protracted, costly, and vexatious.