Trial courts hear many different types of cases. Overall, cases fall under 1 of 2 categories:
"Civil" cases are the cases in which private citizens (or companies) sue each other in court. Civil cases are not about breaking a criminal law.
There are many different kinds of cases in civil court. This website has separate sections for the most common kinds of civil cases. For more detailed information, you can go to our home page and click on the topic that interests you.
There are a lot of different kinds of cases in civil court:
Unlike in criminal cases, there is no right to a court-appointed lawyer in most civil cases. This means that, if you cannot afford a lawyer and you cannot get a legal aid or pro bono (volunteer) lawyer, you have to represent yourself. Click if you want more information about being your own lawyer and Representing Yourself.
Some civil cases are decided by judges or by commissioners, like family law, small claims, probate, or juvenile cases. Other civil cases are decided by juries, where it is only necessary that at least 9 of the 12 jurors agree on the verdict.
Standard of proof
In most civil cases, the judge or jury has to make a decision about which side wins based on a standard called “preponderance of the evidence.” This means that, if you win, your side of the story is more likely than not. It does not mean that one side brought in more evidence than the other side. It means that one side’s evidence was more believable than the other's.
In some cases, the standard for reaching a decision is “clear and convincing evidence.” This means that, for you to win, you have to prove that your version of the facts is highly probably or reasonably certain, or “substantially more likely than not.”
BUT neither of these standards is as strong as the standard in criminal cases, which requires the state to prove that the defendant is guilty of the crime he or she is being charged with beyond a reasonable doubt.
A criminal case is a lawsuit brought by the state against a person who has broken a criminal law. They are usually filed by the district attorney (also called the "DA"), which represents the state, against 1 or more defendants. Only the state, not another person or company, can bring criminal charges against you. The penalty for being found guilty of a crime is jail or prison time or a fine (or both).
Criminal cases are separated into three main categories:
Because of the serious consequences of a guilty verdict, defendants in criminal cases have a number of constitutional rights, like the right to a court-appointed lawyer if they cannot afford one, the right to remain silent, the protection from unreasonable searches, and the right to a jury of their peers.
In criminal cases, the defendant is presumed innocent. The prosecutor (the DA) must prove a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. And to convict a defendant, the jury must be unanimous, so all 12 jurors must agree on the verdict.
Click for more information about criminal cases.