A "Civil Case", just as the name suggests, is a case that takes place in "Civil Court". Usually a civil case surrounds money – one party wants it, the other party doesn’t want to pay it. However a civil case can involve a myriad of things, such as a demand by one party for the opposing party to do or refrain from doing something (A perfect example would be to stop someone from driving their car across your property or throwing garbage on your lawn).
Civil cases in California usually fall into one of three categories – Small Claims, Limited Jurisdiction, and Unlimited Jurisdiction cases. In general the classification used depends on the subject matter of the lawsuit and more importantly the amount demanded.
Civil cases have to be filed in the proper jurisdiction (A fancy word for courthouse). Generally the lawsuit is filed where the loss was incurred, the wrongful act took place, the contract was signed, or where the defendant resides.
Civil matters (Other than small claims cases which are done more in a “Judge Judy” context) are complex and take months if not years to bring to trial. As such even a simple civil case (Other than small claims where litigants generally represent themselves) tends to be expensive. In civil court you can ALWAYS lose, no matter how strong you think your case is. Therefore there is always some level of financial exposure that has to be considered.
Another thing to remember is that you have to have “Damages”. No damages or minimal damages, and the lawsuit is not worth litigating, if it can be brought at all.
If you win, you are going to get a “Judgment” from the court in your favor. A judgment is a document that says the other party owes you something, or has to do/refrain from doing something (It is basically the court’s order). Obtaining a judgment is not the same as “Collecting” on a judgment. Collecting on a judgment or enforcing it is an entirely different story and many times is impossible. Beware of any lawyer that recommends the filing of a civil suit, but doesn’t discuss whether or not you are going to be able to recover or enforce a judgment should you win.
The way that a lawyer is paid in civil cases in many instances is regulated by the state bar and depends on the type of case. Some cases lend themselves to a “Pay in advance” fee arrangement. However In most civil matters the parties have to pay a retainer to the attorney to start the case, pay the filing fee(s) and then “Pay as they go” for their additional legal fees and costs as the case progresses. Some cases however can be taken by the attorney on a “Contingency” – that is the attorney is paid at the end of the case (Usually accident cases are done this way). However, if you lose the case, you may still owe the attorney his fees. Sometimes attorney’s will take cases with the additional caveat that “If you don’t win, you don’t pay”. This arrangement is only conducive to certain types of litigation and although often talked about, this arrangement isn’t commonly entered into.
Most clients would prefer a contingency relationship, however this is not always the best situation. First, if the lawyer has to wait and take a chance on not getting paid, the client will probably have to pay more in the end to cover the lawyers risk. Additionally a contingency agreement makes the lawyer a partner with the client in the litigation. At first this seems desirable as one would think that the attorney would then be motivated to work harder to make sure he or she gets paid.
However the reverse is usually the case since as the matter develops through discovery, if the facts or law develop to not be in the client’s favor, human nature may set in and the lawyer may lose interest in the case and not work on it as enthusiastically as the client may like - if at all. A pay as you go arrangement is usually the best agreement as it keeps the lawyer motivated to work on the case, and the client motivated to resolve the matter as quickly as possible (You would be surprised how many people will refuse to settle a matter and take the risk of losing everything and force a six week trial simply because they are convinced that they will get an extra $100 dollars).
A Criminal matter takes place in Criminal court. These cases generally fall into three categories (In increasing severity) - Infractions (Tickets), Misdemeanors, and Felonies. Infractions are generally handled in one hearing unless the accused wants to have a trial. Misdemeanors and Felonies generally are much more complex and require multiple appearances. Felonies in particular are very serious as they generally involve substantial jail time for the accused if found guilty.
Because of the array of charges that a person may be charged with, we cannot cover all aspects of a criminal case in the space we have here. However our office can provide criminal defense for any matter from the simplest traffic ticket to the most serious felony.
If you think that you have a cause of action against someone and want to file or defend a civil lawsuit, or defend against a criminal matter, feel free to give us a call. We will be happy to review the case with you and discuss your options.