What Happens During a Civil Lawsuit?
You have probably heard of hearings in connection with court cases, but may not fully understand what they are or what happens during a hearing. Hearings are a typical part of every kind of legal case and are formal proceedings in front of the judge who is presiding over your case. In criminal cases or family law matters, you will likely appear and participate in any hearings that are conducted more often than you would when you are a party in a civil matter. Typically, when you have an attorney representing you in a civil matter, they will attend the hearings on your behalf, but there may be some circumstances where you would also need to attend a hearing and give testimony to the court.
Hearings are conducted in civil cases for a few primary purposes. One reason that the court may call the parties and their counsel before it is for scheduling or to get updates on how the case is progressing and the amount of time that is needed for the parties to conduct discovery, file certain types of motions, or prepare the case for trial. These hearings are often referred to as “Scheduling Conferences” or “Status Conferences,” but scheduling and deadlines in the case may often come up as a part of other hearings as well.
Another common reason that a hearing may be held in your civil case is to rule on various motions that the parties may file during the course of the lawsuit. A party will file a written document, called a motion, which is generally filed with an accompanying “memorandum” or “brief.” The motion will ask the court for some kind of ruling or relief, and the accompanying brief will set forth all of the facts, procedure, and law that supports the reasons the party is asking the court for that ruling and why the court should grant the ruling or relief that the party seeks. The other side will then have the opportunity to file a brief in response, stating their position on the issue and providing facts, procedure, and law which supports their argument on why the court should or should not accept the moving party’s argument and request. Sometimes the moving party then has the opportunity to file a reply brief, which reiterates their initial request to the court and addresses anything else that was raised in the response brief. The court will then often schedule a hearing so the judge can hear the arguments from each side. This gives the judge the chance to ask additional questions of the parties so that he or she can better understand the arguments and reasoning of the parties in making their request. The judge will then rule on the motion. Sometimes this ruling will be given verbally from the bench at the conclusion of the hearing, but other times the judge will take the matter “under advisement” and will later issue the decision through a written order.
The topics that are often addressed in motions practice during the course of a civil lawsuit include disputes over discovery, requests for dismissal of certain claims or parties in the lawsuit, extensions of deadlines, and evidentiary issues that would be important at trial. However, there are a broad range of topics that may come up in motions practice.
You may also have to attend a hearing after your case is resolved through settlement. Particularly when your lawsuit involved a claim for a wrongful death or brought claims on behalf of a minor, the court will conduct a hearing to approve the settlement and proposed distribution of the settlement funds. This is a hearing that you will likely need to attend, because the court may want to ask questions of the parties regarding the distribution of the funds, especially if there is some dispute as to how the distribution will occur. The court will also want to make sure that you understand what the settlement means and how the funds will be distributed. While a hearing on settlement is not required in many cases, where there was a wrongful death or a minor is involved, the court will conduct a settlement approval hearing. Your lawyer will attend this with you as well, and will handle the majority of the presentation to the court, but this is one type of hearing that you will probably be required to attend in person.