In California, disputes between private parties ordinarily are resolved by litigation. Litigation occurs within our court system. We have an extremely complex system, in which there are a large number of different courts. The basic division is between the California state court system, and the federal court system. In the state court system, we have Superior Courts in every country, which hear trials, and then Courts of Appeal, which hear appeals from the Superior Court, and the California Supreme Court, which hears appeals from the Courts of Appeal. In the federal court system, we have U.S. District Courts, which hear trials, then federal Courts of Appeal and the United States Supreme Court. California is divided into four federal districts: the Northern District, based in San Francisco; the Central District, covering Los Angeles, Orange County, Riverside County and surrounding areas; the Southern District, covering the San Diego area and the Eastern District, covering the Central Valley. Our federal Court of Appeal is the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal, which also serves most of the western United States.
There are also a wide variety of specialized courts. For example, there are U.S. Bankruptcy Courts, which exist as specialized units of each U.S. District Court. There is the Bankruptcy Appellate Panel, to hear bankruptcy appeals. There are tribunals for workers compensation cases.
Most disputes in California are sent to the Superior Courts. A court case is started, when one party files a formal document called a complaint, which states his or her grievance in formal terms. For a complaint to be properly filed, it must be accompanied by a summons, a civil case cover sheet and (in Los Angeles County) a civil case cover sheet addendum. There is also a filing fee.
After the complaint is filed, it is served upon the other parties. There are a number of technical rules relating to service, which are intended to insure that the other parties do, in fact, receive the complaint in a timely manner. After parties are served, they have thirty days to respond. They can respond either by answering the complaint, or by attacking it, by filing a demurrer, motion to strike, motion to quash or some other motion. This entire process is subject to a large number of technical rules; you are very ill advised to try to do this yourself. To do this process properly, you need an attorney.
After the complaint is filed, and the answers are on file, the litigation proceeds. The ultimate end point of litigation, which a particular case may or may not reach, is trial. Once upon a time, it took many years to get to trial in California. That is no longer the case. Our system has made a great effort to speed up, and in Los Angeles County, it is now relatively routine that cases can to trial within about one year of being filed.
In the time between filing the case and trial, the parties can conduct discovery. This is the legal process for obtaining information and preserving evidence. It consists of taking depositions of witnesses (questioning witnesses under oath, before a court reporter), propounding interrogatories (asking written questions under oath), obtaining documents from the other side and so forth. If the case requires it, experts may be hired to give opinions on technical issues, such as the fair market value of real property.
There are many ways that cases can be resolved without trial. Most cases settle voluntarily, at some point in the process. Another alternative is for one party to make a motion for summary judgment. This is a written request to the court to decide the matter without trial. It is only proper if there is no real dispute about any of the major facts.