What is Civil Litigation?


Civil litigation is the process of resolving a legal dispute between individuals, between organizations, or between both. The dispute may involve multiple parties on either side.

Unlike criminal law, where the government prosecutes violations of criminal statutes, civil litigation involves private disputes where a plaintiff seeks compensation or another form of relief from a defendant.


Civil litigation encompasses a broad range of disputes, including, but not limited to:

  • Personal injury claims
  • Employment and labor disputes
  • Intellectual property rights
  • Medical malpractice
  • Family law matters
  • Contract disputes
  • Real estate and property issues


The objective of civil litigation is to resolve disputes in a fair and legal manner, whether through the court system or through an alternative dispute resolution method. The remedy sought by the plaintiff may be monetary, or it may be injunctive relief to either require a defendant to do something or refrain from doing something.


Civil Litigation Process Basics


The civil litigation process can be complex and vary significantly between jurisdictions, but it generally includes the following stages:


1. Pre-Litigation

Before a lawsuit is filed with the court, the parties may first analyze the strengths and weaknesses of their case, then meet to discuss the dispute and attempt to resolve it without taking legal action. This phase may involve making use of an alternative dispute resolution method, including: negotiation, mediation, or arbitration.


2. Pleadings

If the pre-litigation phase does not lead to a resolution, the plaintiff may initiate the lawsuit by filing a complaint (or petition) with the court. The complaint outlines the plaintiff's claims against the defendant, the facts supporting their claims, and the legal relief sought.

The defendant may then file an answer pleading, admitting or denying each allegation in the plaintiff's complaint. The defendant may also raise affirmative defenses and/or counterclaims against the plaintiff.


3. Discovery

Discovery is the pre-trial phase in which both parties exchange information and gather evidence related to their case. The evidence gathering may include interrogatories (written questions), depositions (sworn testimony taken outside of court), and requests for documents.


4. Pre-Trial Motions

Either party may file motions to ask the court to rule on the case, or take some kind of action. Common pre-trial motions include: motions to dismiss, motions for summary judgment, and motions to compel discovery.


5. Trial

If the case is not resolved through motions or settlement, it may proceed to trial. During the trial, both parties present their evidence and arguments to the judge (in a bench trial) or jury (in a jury trial). The trial process includes: opening statements, witness testimony (direct examination), cross-examination, and closing arguments.


6. Judgment and Appeal

After the trial, the judge or jury renders a verdict. If the plaintiff prevails, the court will issue a judgment in their favor and determine the relief, such as monetary damages or injunctive relief.

Either party has the right to appeal the trial court's decision to a higher court, if they believe there has been a legal error that affected the outcome of the case.


7. Enforcement

If the plaintiff is awarded a judgment and the defendant does not voluntarily comply, the plaintiff may need to take additional steps to enforce the judgment. This can involve garnishing wages, placing liens on property, or seizing assets.



Civil litigation is a fundamental aspect of the legal system, providing a structured framework for resolving disputes peacefully and legally. While the process can be lengthy and emotionally taxing for the parties involved, it is nevertheless designed to ensure that all parties have the opportunity to present their case and seek justice under the law.


For more information concerning the civil litigation process, check out the Self Rep Edge Video Series and Civil Litigation Workbook.