First, make sure you read our section on Basics of Court forms, where you will find a lot of useful information about preparing your paperwork before you go to court.
Once you are ready to file your papers in court, there are some general rules that apply:
Filing court papers by mail
In most cases, you can file papers by mail. Call the court clerk to make sure you can file by mail for your kind of case. Keep in mind that filing by mail will likely slow down the process. And it is not as safe as filing in person, when you can see exactly what is being done and can get your documents right then and there.
Caution! Some cases, like restraining orders and evictions, have very tight deadlines. If you file by mail, you may miss the deadline.
To find out what your court required to file your papers by mail, call the court clerk and ask:
Also ask if there are any other rules you need to know to file by mail.
When you file a lawsuit, you will usually file a petition or a complaint. You also will almost always need a summons. And, in most civil cases, you will need a Civil Case Cover Sheet (Form CM-010). In the individual topics in this website, we tell you exactly what forms you need for your dispute.
When you first file, you will not have a case number. The clerk will stamp it on your paperwork, and that will be your case number throughout the case. Once you file as a plaintiff or petitioner, you will always be referred to as the plaintiff or petitioner. This is true even if, later in the case, the other side takes you to court for a related request of some type.
Once you file your complaint or petition and your summons, you will have to serve the other side with a copy. This means that you will have to legally deliver the papers to the other side. Read our section on Service of Process for details on how to do this.
The respondent or defendant in your case may or may not file an answer or some other type of response. In most cases, he or she will have 30 days from the date you deliver your papers to him or her to file a response. In some cases, like evictions or domestic violence, you will have a lot less time, usually just a few days.
If the respondent or defendant does not file any type of response with the court within those 30 days, the court does not just make a decision. You have to ask the court to “enter the default” of the respondent/defendant, which means that he or she is no longer allowed to file a response and has defaulted (so your case will be decided based only on the information you give to the court, without the other side having any input into the matter).
You can then follow the procedures for requesting a court judgment in your favor. The individual sections on this Online Self-Help Center will explain this in a lot more detail, but for now, just remember that you are not done once you file and serve your lawsuit, even if the other side does not do anything. There are more steps for you to take to get a court order.
If you are served with a lawsuit, you usually have to file a formal response in court if you want to participate in the case. Writing a letter to the court and either mailing it or dropping it off is NOT enough. You need to actually file your response with the court clerk. There are some cases where you can show up at your court hearing without filing papers (like in small claims cases), but in general, you should file your response if you want to make sure the judge will hear your side of the story. Keep in mind that if you have a court hearing and have not filed any papers in response, you can still show up at the court hearing and try to explain your side.
Here are some tips if you are served court papers:
There are several ways to respond. The most common is to file an answer or a response. But there are also motions (requests) you can file, depending on the situation in your case. It is very important that you get legal help to find out how you should respond to a lawsuit.
If you do NOT respond in time, the plaintiff or petitioner can ask the court to “enter a default” against you. That means that you can no longer respond or participate in the case, and the court will usually order what the plaintiff or petitioner asked for in the petition or complaint.
The individual sections of this Online Self-Help Center will explain how to respond and what to do in a lot more detail.
Many court filings require a filing fee. Usually, the largest fee is what is called the “first appearance” fee because you have to pay it the first time you file papers in a given case. So, if you are the plaintiff and are filing a complaint, you have to pay this fee. If you are the defendant and are filing a response or some other paper for the first time in the case, you, too, have to pay this “first appearance” fee.
After the first appearance fee, there are other court fees for filing documents, but they are smaller amounts.
The fees are uniform in all 58 California counties (except for Riverside, San Bernardino and San Francisco counties, where fees may include a small surcharge related to local court construction needs). Click to find the filing fees on the Statewide Civil Court Fee Schedule. Also, courts have their fee schedules posted on their website. Click to find your court's website.
If you are low income and cannot afford to pay the filing fee, you may qualify for a fee waiver. Click for information about fee waivers.
When you have a case in court, you must always keep the court updated with any changes in your address or phone number (or your name, if you change your name). If the court does not have your most current address, you will miss important court notices. Also, once a case is going, a party can usually serve the other party by mail at the address of record with the court. If your address with the court is outdated, you will also miss important papers filed by the other side in your case. You could lose important rights.
So, in order to keep the court updated, whenever your address changes, you must file an official court form called a Notice of Change of Address (Form MC-040) with the court.
To file a change of address:
You should also keep the court updated if you change lawyers, or if you go from having a lawyer to representing yourself or vice versa.
To do this, you have to fill out and file a Substitution of Attorney-Civil (Form MC-050). This form is required whenever someone changes the person who is acting as his or her lawyer. If a lawyer is representing you, and you now want to represent yourself, you need to complete this form. The Substitution of Attorney — Civil will remove one person as the lawyer in the case and replace that person with someone else (you or your new lawyer if you have one).
If you are acting as your own lawyer and then hire a lawyer, you will also need to fill out this form.
Follow these steps: