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Understand your case type because it determines how your case proceeds in the courts.
Civil Cases involve a disagreement between two (or more) parties.
- The plaintiff brings a lawsuit against the defendant. There can be multiple plaintiffs and multiple defendants.
- Often, if the plaintiff wins the lawsuit, the defendant must pay money to the plaintiff.
- Family law cases are included in the category of civil cases.
Criminal Cases involve the violation of a criminal law.
- A Maryland criminal case starts with a written statement accusing a defendant of breaking the law.
- A private citizen (or a law enforcement officer) may ask a District Court Commissioner to file a statement of charges to start a criminal case against a defendant. The person asking for the statement of charges must provide a sworn affidavit, and the Commissioner must determine whether the affidavit shows probable cause that the defendant committed the offense.
- The State of Maryland is the party that prosecutes criminal charges in court. A defendant who is found guilty will be punished by the State, often with fines or incarceration.
- Traffic cases are included in the category of criminal cases.
- Often, criminal cases involve victims who have been harmed by a crime. Victims and defendants both have important rights. For example, defendants have a right to counsel, and victims generally have a right to seek restitution for their losses. Learn more about victim's rights.
- Note: Even if a statement of charges is filed, the State of Maryland may not choose to prosecute the charges.
- Learn more about criminal law.
Juvenile Cases involve children.
- Juvenile cases include cases where a child is accused of breaking a law, as well as cases of child abuse.
- Learn more about youth law.
Most of the information in the People’s Law Library is about civil case types most frequently handled in state courts by self-represented parties. The rest of this article will focus on civil cases.
Your legal situation is important to you—and to the other party. Filing a court case affects your legal rights and the rights and duties of the other party. Stop and take the time to consider whether a court case is the best way to resolve your dispute. If it is, think through how you plan to go forward with it.
- A legal claim is different from a moral claim. Just because you have been treated unfairly does not mean that you have a legal case. The law covers many, but not all, wrongs. Sometimes you may have been treated unfairly but the law does not provide protection.
Consider handling your dispute outside of court. Court cases take time, cost money and may cause some stress or disruption in your life.
- Talk with the other party. Make sure you take the time to present all the facts correctly. If it’s possible, try to talk in a “neutral” area or by phone. If you reach an agreement, put it in writing, sign it and have the other person sign it too. Your local law library may have sample agreements that you can use to help get you started.
- Write a letter to the other party. Tell the other party what you expect done and give them a reasonable time to do it. At this point, think about including a statement that you may pursue a legal action if the other party does not take care of the problem by the date you give. However, always be respectful in conveying this information, even if you’re upset. Make a copy of the letter for your files and then send the letter by certified mail. Your local law library may have sample “demand letters” that you can use to help get you started. Learn more about demand letters.
- Consider mediation, especially if the other side is someone you will deal with in the future. Mediation is an alternative to going to court. Many courts order that mediation be attempted in certain types of cases before it can go to trial. When the other side is a relative or a neighbor, you are likely to have future dealings with that person. It makes sense to consider this least disruptive and less costly way to reconcile your differences. Learn more about mediation.
If these strategies don’t work for you, then you might need to file a case in court. Think about whether filing a lawsuit is really “worth it.”
- Consider whether or not you can really win your case.
- If you do win, make sure that the costs and time spent are in line with the amount of money you can actually receive from the other party.
To have a chance to win your case, make sure that you:
- File your case on time. The court has rules about how much time you have between the date of the dispute and when you can file a case. Many factors affect how this date is calculated, so file soon after the date of the dispute. In many instances, you have three years to file a case, but read the rules to make sure. Learn about statutes of Limitations.
- Can “prove” your case by providing evidence. When you file a case, you become the “plaintiff.” (The opposing party is the “defendant.”) You always have “the burden of proof” to show why you should win. You show your proof according to the legal standard called the “preponderance of the evidence,” which means that you are more likely to be right than wrong. To do this, of course, you will need to make sure that you have collected, or will be able to collect, evidence that explains your dispute. Evidence can be documents like contracts, invoices, letters or doctor’s reports. There are many rules regarding different types of evidence and what the court will admit as proof and what it won’t. You should read these rules if you have any questions.
- Don’t expect the judge to do all of the work to prove your side of the case. The person who filed the case must prove the case. People who represent themselves often think that they simply need to show up on the day of the trial, and the judge will sort out the legal case. If you do not prove the case to a sufficient level, you will lose.
- You must follow the law to prove your case. First research what the law says about your particular issue. Follow court rules specifying how to prove your case. You need to understand the law and the rules. If you do not understand and apply the law and the rules that apply to your case correctly, you may waste time and effort making the wrong argument. You may even lose when you should have won!
- Can follow the legal requirements for your type of case. The type of case you file determines what type of evidence you will need. For example, in a contract dispute, you should have a copy of the contract signed by both parties. In a negligence case, you will need to show that the other party had a duty to care for you, and that you were injured somehow as a result of the other party not caring for you. When you file a case, you will need to state—and later prove—these legal requirements.
Costs. You will need to make some decisions about costs.
- How much you might receive if you win your case.
- Consider what you are owed, of course and whether you might deserve an additional amount from the other party to make you “whole” again (i.e., to get you back in the position you were in before the dispute).
- Consider factors such as interest, court costs and attorney’s fees.
- Does the other party have the ability to pay. For instance, the other party may have filed for bankruptcy. Or, sometimes the defendant just will refuse to pay. While you have rights in that instance, the practical problem for you is that you will need to spend more time to get your money.
Representation by an attorney. Decide how you will handle your case—with an attorney or by yourself. An attorney has valuable training and must try to do what is best for you, the client. It is usually best to work with an attorney if you can. You can find out how to hire an attorney at Tips on Hiring a Private Attorney. If you cannot afford to hire an attorney, you may be eligible for free or reduced-cost legal services. Check the Legal Services Directory for more information. Even if you are not eligible for free or reduced-cost representation, you may not have enough money to hire an attorney. If that is your situation, courts offer some self-help services to give you help and information that you can use to handle your own case. Check here for self-help services.