The Basics of Starting Your Case
Before filing a lawsuit, there are few things to consider.
- Alternatives to Court
- Financial Costs
- Legal Research
- Legal Terms
- What is the law?
- Where to find the law?
- Legal Advice
Alternatives to Court - There may be alternatives to court that will allow you to accomplish your goals. Particularly in small claims cases, it can make sense to try to resolve a dispute before going through the expense and time required in taking a case to court. Learn more about alternatives to court.
Have you considered the financial costs? There are filing and service fees. There is the possibility of attorney fees. If you hire an attorney, you and the attorney will decide on the amount of the fees. If you file your claim in any court, you will need to pay a filing fee (except if you are the petitioner in a domestic violence case). If you ask the court to take some action later in the case, there may be a separate fee. If the sheriff or the court clerk helps you serve the court papers to the other side, there will be an additional fee. Learn more about court fees and filing fee waivers. In addition, there is the investment of your own time and efforts, which may have financial costs as well.
Legal Research - Whether your case is in the general District Court caseload or one of the special proceedings such as small claims court or landlord-tenant court, understanding the law and the rules is critical. The “law” will tell you about your rights and obligations. The “rules” will tell you how the case will be handled in the courts. You need to be familiar with both in order to be successful with your case in court. If you have a sense of your chances of success, it will help you in negotiating as well. Learn more about legal research.
- Small claims court is informal. Meaning that many of the rules on how you must present testimony and evidence do not apply. Your rights and obligations under the law, however, remain the same. The more you understand, the better your chances of proving your case.
- Don’t rely only on what others say. Read the law and rules yourself. You can find good information on websites like this, but you still have to do additional research to strengthen your chances of winning.
Legal Terms - Lawyers and judges use a number of special terms to describe certain concepts in the law.
- Many of the terms are in Latin. For example, the Latin word “corpus” means “body”
- Words that have a plain English meaning may also have a very special legal meaning. For example, the term "party" means “a social gathering” in common English and means “a person or group involved in a legal proceeding as litigants” as a legal term.
- This means that legal terms can be confusing at first.
- Keep in mind:
- Some words you already know, such as “alibi”.
- You usually do not need to know more than a few legal terms.
- Keep in mind:
- The Maryland Courts website has a glossary of legal terms and their definitions.
What is the law? Many people think of there is one special set of books that are “the law.” Instead, the law is a combination of rules that have been created by different levels and branches of government as well as our combined history. You must consider the combined influence of all of these when looking at the facts in your case.
Where do I find "the law"?
- The Peoples Law Library website has explanations of many common areas of legal problems and disputes. Learn more about the basics of finding the law.
- Visit your local law library where a librarian can help guide you to appropriate resources. Keep in mind that the librarian cannot provide legal advice on your situation. The librarian can also assist with finding legal resources and locating legal help.
Legal Advice - Many legal concepts are complicated, and the special training lawyers have allows them to:
- analyze your situation
- present options
- offer guidance on the best option
You may also want to consult an attorney for their objectivity and distance from the problem you are trying to solve. Often cases involve emotions that can cloud your judgment or keep you from thinking rationally. There are many options for legal advice and some are free or low cost.
Should you hire an attorney? The answer to this will depend on the type of case, how comfortable you are representing yourself, and how much you have to lose. For a complete list of options, including limited scope representation, please see our Get Help page.