Process of a Civil and a Criminal Case

This discussion looks at the basic steps involved in a civil and a criminal case.


Civil case. The civil justice process is the system that exists to settle disputes between citizens, both individuals and organizations. The burden of proof in a civil case is on the party filing suit, and it requires proof by a preponderance of the evidence, which means that the events alleged to have occurred more likely than not occurred. The right to trial by jury does not apply to civil cases. Some civil cases are tried before a jury; some are tried before a judge or other arbiter.


The case begins with the filing of a complaint. The party filing the suit is called the plaintiff. The party being sued is called the defendant. In a civil case, the complaint typically asks for money damages, but it can also seek what is called injunctive relief, which means that the court is being asked to order the defendant to do or, more commonly, refrain from doing something.


The party or parties sued then file an answer. Once the pleadings from all the parties are filed, the case enters what is usually called the discovery phase. During the discovery phase, the parties are trying to learn as much as they can about the nature and the merits of the other party's position. The discovery phase may include requests to produce documents, written questions of the other party called interrogatories, or depositions, which are face-to-face question-and-answer sessions under oath.


After discovery is completed, a trial date is set. If it's a jury trial, the lawyers will question prospective juries and select a jury. The trial begins with opening statements, in which the lawyers describe for the judge or the jury what they expect the evidence to show. Evidence is then presented, first by the plaintiff, then by the defendant. Most of the evidence typically consists of live testimony from witnesses, but the parties will also introduce documents and other papers that may be relevant to the merits of the case.


After all the evidence is taken, both sides make closing arguments, in which the lawyers suggest to the judge or jury what the evidence they have just seen means. The judge or jury then takes the evidence and renders a decision.


The losing party has the right to appeal the decision to an appeals court. The role of the appellate court is to examine the record of the lower court proceeding for reversible error. All of the records from the lower court proceeding, such as transcripts of the testimony and other evidence introduced at trial, are sent to the appellate court for their review. The appellate court does not conduct a new trial. Instead, it usually hears oral arguments from the attorneys for both sides. After hearing the arguments and reviewing the record, the court will either affirm or reverse the lower court decision (it can affirm some parts and reverse others). In some cases, it will remand the proceedings back to the lower court for a new trial. If it refuses to hear an appeal, the decision of the lower court will be final.


An appeal from the appeals court can be made to a final appellate court (U.S. Supreme Court in the federal system, Illinois Supreme Court in the state system). As with the appellate court, the supreme court will review the record, hear oral arguments (if necessary), and render a decision. All decisions of the supreme court are final.


Criminal case. The criminal justice process is the system that exists to try people for crimes for which they have been charged. The burden of proof in a criminal case is on the government, and it requires proof of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. Thus, in order to be convicted of a crime, the government must prove to the satisfaction of 12 jurors that the person charged with a crime committed the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. Under the U.S. Constitution, all criminal defendants are presumed innocent until convicted, and they are entitled to a speedy trial.


The process often begins with the arrest by the police of the person suspected of committing a crime. In some cases, the process begins with an indictment by a grand jury. Following an indictment, an arrest warrant is issued and the suspect is arrested.


The next step is a bail hearing, at which time the judge hears the charges and decides if the accused should be released on bail or kept in custody. An accused will be kept in custody if, for example, the court is convinced that he or she might leave the country. At this hearing, the accused is informed of the charges and given the right to a public defender if he or she cannot afford an attorney.


The next step is a probable-cause hearing, at which time the judge hears the evidence and decides whether probable cause exists to believe the accused committed the crime. If probable cause does not exist, the accused is set free.


The next step is the arraignment, at which time the accused makes his or her plea. In Illinois, three pleas are possible: guilty, not guilty, and guilty but mentally ill.


If the accused pleads not guilty, and no plea bargain is reached, the trial is the next step. The prosecution goes first and makes an opening statement. The accused's attorney then makes an opening statement. The prosecution then calls witnesses, who are cross-examined by the accused's attorney. The accused calls witnesses, who are cross-examined by the prosecution. The prosecution makes closing arguments, followed by the accused's attorney's closing argument. The jury then renders a guilty or not guilty decision.


If the accused is found guilty, the next step is the sentencing. The law statutes set out the type of sentence that the judge can apply. The judge at the sentencing considers the evidence at trial; a pre-sentencing report; mitigating circumstances, if any; a statement made by the accused; and statements made by the victim or the victims relatives to reach a decision.


The accused is entitled to appeal any guilty verdicts. The prosecutor, however, cannot appeal a not guilty verdict because of the double-jeopardy rule, which says that someone cannot be tried twice for the same crime.

This IS NOT intended to be legal advice or in any way replace the advice and judgment of a licensed lawyer. Every case and situation is unique and only a licensed lawyer can offer legal advice which is appropriate for your situation