What type of case do I have?
Knowing what type of case or issue you have will help you determine how to proceed.
Civil Cases: Civil cases involve a disagreement between two parties. One party, called the plaintiff, brings a lawsuit against another party, called the defendant. 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: 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. (Even if a statement of charges is filed, the State of Maryland may not choose to prosecute the charges.) 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.
Juvenile Cases: Juvenile cases involve children. Juvenile cases include cases where a child is accused of breaking a law, as well as cases of child abuse.
Most of the information in the People’s Law Library is about the types of civil cases most frequently handled in state courts by self-represented parties. However, we also provide some very basic information, including links to other information sources, regarding Criminal Law and Victim’s Rights, as well as Youth Law.
The remaining information is about civil cases.
Your legal situation is important to you—and to the other party. The filing of a court case affects your legal rights and the rights and duties of the other party. For this reason, it’s very important that you stop and take the time to think whether or not a court case is the best way to resolve your dispute, and if it is how you plan to go forward with it.
The first step to think about is handling your dispute outside of court. Court cases take time, cost money and may cause some stress or disruption in your life. Some strategies to use in handling your problem outside of court are these:
- 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, you should 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, you should always be respectful in conveying this information, even if you’re upset. You should 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.
- Consider mediation. There are now many mediation programs to choose from. The advantage of mediation is that it’s less costly and less formal than going to court. A professionally skilled and neutral mediator will hear your story and the other side and work to find more of a win-win resolution to your dispute. You can find mediation programs here.
If these strategies don’t work for you, then you might need to file a case in court.
Your next step is to think about whether filing a lawsuit is really “worth it.” You should think about whether or not you can really win your case. If you do win, you should make sure that the costs and time spent are in line with the amount of money you can actually receive from the other party.
In order to have a chance to win your case, you will need to 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 you should file soon after the date of the dispute. In many instances you have three years to file a case, but you should read the rules to make sure. For more information, read the article on 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.
- 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.
You will also need to make some personal decisions about costs. First, you need to think about how much you might receive if you win your case. You will need to consider what you are owed, of course. You also might deserve and additional amount from the other party to make you “whole” again and to get you back in the position you were in before the dispute (factors such as interest, court costs and attorney’s fees).
Second, you will need to make sure the other party has 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.
Finally, you will need to 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. To help you decide if you might be successful handling a case on your own, use this quiz.