Civil procedure concerns the laws governing private lawsuits as opposed to those governing criminal actions. The framework of these laws comes from both legislative bodies (Congress and the Washington Legislature) and the courts. The legislatively created laws are called statutes and are codified in the United States Code at the federal level and in the Revised Code of Wahsington at the state level. The primary judicially created laws on civil proceudre are called "court rules." At the federal level, these are codified in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure; at the state level, they are codified in the "Civil Rules" portion of the Washington Court Rules. The courts also decide cases interpreting both the statutes and the rules and those cases are also a part of the legal framework of civil procedure. This article will focus on the Washington civil procedure laws since those are the ones that citizens of the state most often deal with.
A civil case begins when one party called the plaintiff files a lawsuit against another party called the defendant. This is done with a legal document called a "complaint" that provides the factual background and legal basis of the lawsuit. One copy of the complaint must be "served" on the defendant and another filed in the court clerk's office. Service can be done different ways depending on the circumstances of the case but usually personal service is required. Personal service is done by delivering the complaint to the defendant in person or leaving it with an adult living at the defendant's residence. The defendant, in turn, responds to the complaint with a legal document called an "answer." The foregoing may be an oversimplification when it comes to certain complicated lawsuits. However, pleadings such as amended complaints, cross-claims, counter-claims, affirmative defenses and lawsuits involving mutiple parties are beyond the scope of this primer on civil procedure. Washington's Civil rules supply the requirements for pleadings and, as importantly, specify the times by which they must be filed. Failure to meet the time deadlines may result in sanctions such as paying costs or even lsoing the case.
After the initial pleadings, there is a process of "discovery." The purpose of discovery is to allow each party to see what evidence the other has to support the arguments at trial. Written discovery is usually done with "interrogatories." Oral discovery is usually done by "deposition." Discovery is usually done outside of the courtroom. When discovery is complete, the parties are ready to go to trial.
Before trial, parties (or more likely their attorneys) can make motions, These often concern the admissibility of evidence. Washington's Rules of Evidence govern what types of documents and testimony the judge or jury can consider in deciding a case. There may be other motions such as those to compel discovery if one party feels the other is withholding information that should be disclosed. If a party needs more time to prepare for trial, there may be a motion for a continuance.
At trial, the parties or their attorneys present their arguments. They usually introduce evidence to support their arguments. Evidence may be introduced through the testimony of witnesses or with properly authenticated exhibits. The trial can be with or without a jury. If it is without a jury, the judge will determine the ultimate outcome of the case in addition to ruling on admissibility, objections and other procedural questsions brought during the trial. After a judgment is rendered, a disappointed party may file an appeal to have all or part of the judgment changed.
In Washington, civil cases can be brought in Superior Court. However, many cases are filed in courts of limited jurisdiction known as District Courts. District Courts have jurisdiction in civil cases if the value of the claim does not exceed $75,000. Civil cases in District Courts usually do not have to wait for a court date as long those pending in Superior Court. Also in District Court, cases for less than $5,000 can be brought in Small Claims Court. Attorneys and paralegals are not allowed to participate in litigating at a small claims hearing without a judge's consent and the rules of procedure and evidence are less formal than a typical civil case.