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 https://azcourthelp.org.

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 https://azcourthelp.org.

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 http://www.azturbocourt.gov.

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”: http://azlawhelp.org/articles_info.cfm?mc=5&sc=36&articleid=400 and/or visit https://azcourthelp.org.

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: https://azcourthelp.org.

Comments:

QUESTIONS

  • i was looking up a justice court criminal case on the Arizonas judicial branch website, which is related to a legal situation that that I am involved in at the present time. I noticed that in the disposition section of the case it states 'comp dismissed by cty atty'. The reason that I ask my question is I thought that only a judge can dismiss a case, in a justice court. I would appreciate it if someone could give me as much information concerning my question as possible.My question is can a county attorney dismiss a criminal case, which is in a local justice court?
  • which court do I need to go to and where can I get forms for a divorce in Maricopa county?
  • my ex filed for a order of protection and was granted it against me for him and my kids the year is now up and i need to know how to get my babies back i tried to file to get the order dropped but could not get to the courthouse to do it now i havent seen my kids in 12 months please help
  • I'm getting suid for $just over 20k, so the case has been assigned to Superior Court. I know I have to file an Answer within 20 days. My question is....How do I file counter suit? Is there someonewhere that offers legal help at a decent rate? Or a website that can show me how to do it? Thanks
  • Please explain what the alpha designators mean in Case Numbers. Example:J-1102-CR-200500311. They begin with J-,M-,etc. Thank you.
  • What is a status hearing and how does it work in Superior Court?
  • ARS28-627 empowers local municipalities to enforce parking on highway/streets within their jurisdication. What ARS empowers local municipalities to enforce parking on private property? i.e grocery store parking area
  • I understand that if my husband CLAIMS he does not know my current address that all he has to do is post something that he has filed for divorce in the newspapers legal section,how can I find out if he has filed or not? I do not trust him.
  • How long after a motion to dismiss or change of venue is presented does a Justice Court Judge have, to rule on that motion?
  • How long will a DUI misdemeanor remain in my court files in Arizona?

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