Civil & Criminal Cases

You know that some lawsuits are civil matters, and some are criminal matters. In a civil case the court is asked to decide a dispute between private individuals or groups. In a criminal case, the court must determine whether someone has committed a crime.

Civil Cases

The party who starts a civil suit is called the plaintiff. The party against whom suit is brought is called the defendant. The lawsuit is started by delivery to the defendant (called service) of two documents: The summons and the complaint.

The Summons

The summons does just that: It calls the defendant before the court. The complaint also does what its name suggests: It lists the plaintiff's complaints against the defendant. It will claim that the defendant has committed some wrong against the plaintiff, such as causing bodily injury or property damage or depriving the plaintiff of something.

The Complaint

The complaint will also ask the court for relief (a remedy for the wrong), such as an award of damages (money) to repay the plaintiff for his or her loss, or an order to the defendant to do something or stop doing something.

The Answer

The defendant responds to the complaint with a document called an answer, which responds to the plaintiff's claims, and explains why the defendant believes the claim is untrue.


All of these documents, called pleadings, were exchanged between the parties before the trial begins.

We've described a very simple civil case. It can be more complicated. There may be more than one plaintiff or defendant. The defendant may also be asking for damages from the plaintiff (a counterclaim), or from another defendant (a cross-claim) or from someone else not originally involved but later added to the case (a third-party defendant).

The plaintiff or defendant may not be individuals; they may instead be partnerships or corporations. A government - city, state, federal - may be a plaintiff or defendant. Whoever the parties are, the purpose of a civil trial is to decide disputes between them.

Criminal Trials

The purpose of a criminal trial is to determine whether or not the defendant has committed a crime.

A criminal case is brought by the government in the name of The People, because a crime is a violation of a law - a rule of conduct - established by the people as a whole to keep order in the community.

The county prosecuting attorney, representing the people of the state usually prosecutes a criminal case (or by the city attorney, if the law involved is a city ordinance).

Information & Indictments

The charges against the defendant are listed in a document filed before the trial, called an information if the charges are filed by the prosecuting attorney, or an indictment if the charges are made by a grand jury. The prosecuting attorney files most criminal cases.

An information or indictment may include several counts (charges or accusations), but each count must be stated separately. For example, one count may charge that the defendant robbed someone (the complainant), while a second count may charge that the defendant also assaulted him.

After the information is filed, but before the trial, the defendant is arraigned - brought before a judge to be informed of the charges - at which time the defendant is asked to plead guilty or not guilty to each count separately.

Other Differences

There are other differences between civil and criminal cases, too many to be discussed in this booklet. The Judge will explain the specific rules governing the trial in which you will participate as a juror. If you do not understand something, or if you have any questions about any of the Judge's instructions, you are free to ask the Judge for further explanation.

In fact it is your duty to ask.