Courts, Legal Basics Article

How to Start a Civil Lawsuit

What is a civil lawsuit?

A civil lawsuit is a court case that results from a private legal dispute between two or more people.

This private legal dispute may arise in a number of very different situations. For example:

    •  when someone suffers a personal injury (perhaps due to a car accident or because a manufactured product was defective) and wants monetary compensation (“damages”) from the individual person or company that caused the injury
    •  when a party to a business contract breaks a promise they made in that contract
    •  when a landlord breaches a rental agreement (perhaps by failing to provide air-conditioning during the summer) or when a tenant breaches a rental agreement (perhaps by withholding their rent, which Arizona law does not permit)
    •  when married spouses divorce or when the parent of a child seeks custody of that child (known formally as legal decision-making and parenting time) and/or support from the other parent
    •  when one person believes that another is acting unlawfully and wants a court to issue an “injunction” ordering the person who is acting unlawfully (perhaps by trespassing on private property or by infringing on a trademark) to stop

The person who initiates a lawsuit is called the “plaintiff,” while the person against whom a lawsuit is filed is called either the “defendant” or the “respondent,” depending on what kind of case it is. (There are differences in the rules of procedure for different kinds of cases.)

How does a civil lawsuit differ from a criminal case?

Unlike a civil lawsuit, which arises from a private dispute and begins when one person “sues” another for relief (usually, but not always, money) from a court, a criminal case is public matter. Certain acts are made “criminal” because they are considered to be harmful not only to the specific individuals involved but also to society as a whole.

A criminal case begins when the government, represented by a “prosecutor”, files formal charges against a person accused of committing a crime.

In a civil lawsuit, the defendant must either represent herself or pay for a private attorney or obtain a legal aid attorney after qualifying financially. However, in a criminal case, in which the defendant faces not only the prospect of losing money but also the prospect of lengthy imprisonment and possibly even death (for capital murder in Arizona), the defendant has a right to the assistance of counsel under the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution. (The Sixth Amendment is interpreted to guarantee the right to assistance of counsel when the defendant faces the possibility of imprisonment for more than one year (as under a “felony” charge) or actually is imprisoned.)

How does someone start a basic civil lawsuit?

Under the Arizona Rules of Civil Procedure (Rule 3), a civil lawsuit begins when the “plaintiff” files a formal Complaint with a court. As a very general rule, the Complaint should contain brief descriptions of each of the following:

    •  the names and addresses of the parties
    •  the legal claim(s) being made
        (a statement of how the applicable law applies to the relevant facts)
    •  the nature of the relief being sought
        (a statement of what the plaintiff wants)

The Complaint must always be signed and dated.

A plaintiff representing herself may obtain and fill out a prepared Complaint form from the Clerk of the Court at the courthouse or online at each county court website or by visiting

The Complaint must be filed with the Clerk of the appropriate court. To learn which specific court is the appropriate court in which to commence a particular lawsuit, please visit

What other steps are required?

Although a civil lawsuit begins when a plaintiff files a Complaint with the Clerk of the Court, that is not all that the plaintiff must do. Under the Arizona Rules of Civil Procedure (Rule 4), the plaintiff must also serve a conformed copy of the Complaint and a Summons on the defendant.

As Rule 113a of the Justice Court Rules of Civil Procedure states in bold and all capital letters: A CASE OR CLAIM AGAINST A DEFENDANT CANNOT PROCEED WITHOUT PROPER SERVICE.

What is a conformed copy?

A “conformed” copy of a Complaint is an exact copy of the Complaint that was filed with the Court.

When the plaintiff arrives at the courthouse to file a Complaint, the plaintiff should bring at least three copies. That way, the Clerk of the Court can place an official stamp on each of them: not only on the one that the judge will receive, but also on the one that the plaintiff must serve on the defendant, as well as another for the plaintiff’s own records.

Some Arizona courts allow electronic filing (“e-filing”). To learn more, please visit

What is service of process?

The term “process” refers to the formal written notice that is used by a court to inform a person that the Court has decided to exercise its jurisdiction over that person. When a person is “served” with process, she is formally notified by the Court that someone has a filed a lawsuit against her. This is why the plaintiff must serve the defendant (or respondent) with process before a lawsuit will proceed.

Once the defendant (or respondent) has been served with process, she has a specified period of time in which to file an answer to the plaintiff’s Complaint. If the defendant (or respondent) does not file an answer, then the plaintiff may be able to obtain a default judgment.

If the Court does not obtain proof that the defendant (or respondent) has been notified that a lawsuit has been filed against her, then the Court will dismiss the plaintiff’s Complaint.

How must process be served?

The specific requirements for service of process depend on a number of factors, including the kind of lawsuit the plaintiff has filed and whether the person being served has a known address and whether that address is in Arizona or out of the state or even out of the country.

For a detailed description of how process must be served, please see the article on this website entitled “Service of Process”: and/or visit

Further information

For self-service forms and lots of other great information about how to file and/or respond to a civil lawsuit, please visit:



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  • State Bar of Arizona
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    Referral number 602-257-4434
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    Referral number 520-623-4625
  • National Domestic Violence Hotline
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