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U.S. Civil Process

Originally published: January 2011

Introduction to the U.S. Civil Process

Civil procedure is the body of law that sets out the rules and standards that courts follow when adjudicating civil lawsuits.

These civil rules govern how the lawsuit is commenced, the service of process required, the types of pleadings (statements of case), motions (applications), and orders allowed. They also include: the timing and manner of depositions and discovery or disclosure; the process for judgment; the various remedies available; and, how the courts and clerks must function.

The most common types of civil cases in the United States include:
  1. Domestic — divorce, child support and custody, etc.
  2. Personal injury — actions to recover damages (money) for injuries.
  3. Contracts — disputes over agreements; often related to payment for goods and services. These civil cases would be of particular interest to creditors.
Civil cases in the United States fall under one of three levels of civil trial courts:
  • Small Claims Court: Actions for less than $5,000
  • District Court: Actions for less than $10,000, and all domestic cases
  • Superior Court: Actions for more than $10,000 
The U.S. federal rules for civil process are codified in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (FRCP), which were initially established in 1938, and most recently revised December 1, 2010.

Each U.S. state, however, is free to develop its own system of civil procedure independent of the other states and the federal court system. Therefore, each jurisdiction in the U.S. can have different rules for civil procedure. Thirty-five states have adopted the FRCP.

In the case of contract law, as it relates to the sale of goods, the rules are highly standardized nationwide due to the widespread adoption of the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC). In addition, various civil court procedures, whether federal or other jurisdictional, share similar principles.

The U.S. Civil Suit Process Flow

The U.S. Civil Process chart (PDF) linked to this article represents a general overview of the flow of the civil law process in the United States. In considering the chart, you should take into account that from one legal jurisdiction to another the process may vary, and that there may be more or fewer steps involved in any given lawsuit.

The 5-page chart begins at the point where a client authorizes a lawsuit. Each page has hyperlinks – yellow or green trapezoids – to off-page locations. There are also links to other sections on the same page, represented by turquoise circles.

This U.S. Civil Process chart provides a useful graphic representation of how our lawsuit system works in the United States.