What is a Civil Court? - Definition & Characteristics

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  • 0:01 Civil Courts
  • 0:46 Civil Court Process
  • 2:42 Comparison
  • 4:37 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erin Krcatovich

Erin teaches undergraduate and graduate classes in Political Science, Public Policy, and Public Administration and has a PhD in Political Science.

In this lesson, we'll learn about the civil court system in the United States. You'll be able to define civil courts and understand difference s between civil and criminal courts.

Civil Courts

A civil court handles legal disputes that are not crimes. In the United States, all such legal matters are handled by judges, attorneys, and law firms that focus on specific areas of non-criminal law, such as patent law or divorce litigation. In civil cases, there is not a prosecution by the government. Rather, the plaintiff, a person, group, business, institution, or a government body, brings a claim of harm against the defendant, another person or group. Among the many types of civil courts, we include personal injury, medical malpractice, torts, traffic court, bankruptcy, adoption and family court, business issues, and many others.

Civil Court Process

A civil case begins when the plaintiff believes that the defendant has caused some harm. The plaintiff will file an official complaint with the appropriate civil court, which describes the incident, identifies who is responsible, and asks the court for a specific remedy. Notice is given, through a formal summons, to the defendant. The defendant has the chance to respond to the complaint, with a formal answer, where he or she explains the incident from his or her perspective.

Cases move through a lengthy process of pre-trial activity. Indeed, most cases will never go to trial but are resolved earlier. In the pre-trial process, information is gathered through a process called discovery. During discovery, witnesses are interviewed, evidence is collected, and statements are taken. Each side is trying to gather the best case possible. Then, instead of going to a formal trial, many civil cases will go before an arbiter, or mediator. An arbiter or mediator is a court official, sometimes a judge or magistrate, who will assist both sides in coming to a satisfactory resolution of the dispute and assignment of blame outside of a courtroom.

When a case does go to trial, the process resembles a criminal trial. Opening statements are made by the plaintiff, then by the defendant, each side explaining the case from his or her perspective. The plaintiff calls witnesses first, with the opportunity for the defense to cross-examine and present appropriate evidence. When all of the plaintiff's witnesses have been called, the prosecution will rest and give the defense the opportunity to call witnesses, present evidence, and be cross-examined. When both sides have rested their cases, closing statements are offered. The judge will offer instructions to the jury (in jury trials) and, after deliberation, the jury will render a verdict. In bench trials (ones without a jury), the judge will then render a verdict. Finally, the court will compel one or both sides to comply with the decision of the court.


There are many important differences between civil and criminal court. Let's learn about the most important distinctions.

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