English Lesson 4 _ The Court Procedures

What are the types of cases that courts handle ?          

The courts handle two main kinds of cases. They are civil cases and criminal cases.

 A civil case is a private court proceeding where someone sues someone else. This is also known as a suit or action. A civil action or suit starts when individuals or corporations disagree on a legal matter, such as the terms of a contract or the ownership of a piece of property. A civil suit can also result if someone is injured or property is damaged. For example, someone who breaks a leg when he or she slips on an icy stairwell may sue for compensation. The person who sues is called the plaintiff. The person being sued is called the defendant.

In a criminal case, a defendant is charged with a crime. The government initiates the case through a prosecutor, who is an attorney for the government.  A criminal case generally begins after the accused is arrested and informed of his or her charges. In regards to criminal cases, the defendant is considered innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt by the prosecutor. The punishment for guilt can be incarceration, a fine, or possibly the death penalty. The defendant has a constitutional right to a jury trial, and to be defended by an attorney.

What are the differences between civil and criminal cases ?

The differences between civil and criminal actions are the parties who may bring the actions; the purposes for the actions; and the procedural rules and requirements for criminal and civil actions.

In criminal cases the party pursuing the action is the government through an attorney known as the prosecutor and the party charged with the crime is the defendant, or the accused. In contrast, private citizens, businesses and institutions can bring civil actions. In civil actions, the party pursuing the action is called the plaintiff and the party responding to the action is called the defendant.

Civil and criminal actions have different purposes. The purpose of civil action is to resolve disputes and provide compensation for someone injured by someone else’s acts or behaviour. The purpose of criminal action is to prevent undesirable behaviour and punish those who commit an act deemed undesirable by society.  In a civil case, the defendant is found liable or not liable. This means he is found responsible or not responsible. If he is found liable, he must pay damages or follow orders. The judge can give the defendant an order for specific performance, in other words, the judge can tell the defendant what he must do or not do to rectify. In a criminal law case, a person is found guilty or not guilty and can be punished by incarceration in a prison or with a fine, or in some countries and on very rare occasions through the death penalty. If he is not guilty, he is acquitted.  

What differentiates the role of the defense counsel in civil law and common law countries ?

In common law countries, the trial is adversarial, so the defense counsel plays an active role in trial proceedings and is considered an equal party to the prosecution. The defense counsel can be present during the questioning of a suspect from the moment of arrest and can advise his/her client during questioning.  The defense attorneys can gather evidence independently, hire expert witnesses, and select witnesses to call at trial. The right to cross-examine prosecution witnesses constitutes an essential element of the rights of the accused. 

In most civil law countries, the defense counsel’s role in court looks very different from the one in the common law countries. In a trial in a civil law system, the defense counsel says very little. The defense counsel does not raise an objection before the judge. The counsel does not examine witnesses, does not call evidence and so forth. Furthermore, the defense counsel can request that the judge (who is responsible for questioning a witness) to ask a particular question in court but may not do so directly.

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