What is a Civil Court? - Definition & Characteristics

Lesson Transcript
Erin Krcatovich

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

Expert Contributor
Lesley Chapel

Lesley has taught American and World History at the university level for the past seven years. She has a Master's degree in History.

Civil courts are courts that deal in non-criminal legal disputes, which can be broken down into several types. Explore the definition of a civil court and its characteristics, along with the legal process and a comparison to criminal courts. Updated: 11/18/2021

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.

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  • 0:01 Civil Courts
  • 0:46 Civil Court Process
  • 2:42 Comparison
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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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Additional Activities

Prompts About Civil Court:

Study Prompt:

Make a set of flashcards containing the definitions of all of the bolded terms from the lesson (civil court, plaintiff, defendant, complaint, answer, discovery, arbiter, mediator, burdens of proof).

Example: An answer is a defendant's response to the plaintiff's initial complaint.

Graphic Organizer Prompt 1:

Create a poster, chart, or some other type of graphic organizer that explains what a civil court is, who the parties in it are, and the process to begin a civil case.

Example: One step in the beginning is that a formal summons is provided to the defendant.

Graphic Organizer Prompt 2:

Make a chart, poster, or some other type of graphic organizer that lists and briefly describes the differences between a civil court and a criminal court.

Example: Punishments are different in civil courts versus criminal courts.

Essay Prompt 1:

Write an essay of approximately one page that explains the pretrial process in a civil case and why it can take so long. Also make sure your essay explains why it is relatively uncommon for civil cases to make it all the way to trial.

Example: Mediators often help both parties come to a resolution so that a trial is not necessary.

Essay Prompt 2:

In about two to three paragraphs, write an essay that describes how a civil case proceeds in trial.

Example: Each side has witnesses testify.

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