Civil Litigation is a process of resolving disputes between parties. Generally, parties use the court process to enforce, exercise or defend a legal right. A litigation lawyer or litigator can represent either the applicant (plaintiff) or the respondent (defendant) in the matter.
As lawyers, our first duty is to the court. Our role is to advocate in the best interests of the client, though without misleading the court. It is a common misconception that litigation lawyers spend most of their day (and the case) fighting for their client’s rights in a court room. In truth, the majority of litigation matters are dealt with and settled without the need to appear before a judge.
What qualifications do you need to be a litigation lawyer?
A litigation lawyer is a lawyer who practises in the area of litigation. As such, the qualifications required to be a litigation lawyer is the same as that to be a lawyer. To be eligible to practise as a lawyer in Australia, one must:
- have completed a law degree from a recognised university;
- have completed an accredited practical legal training course;
- be formally admitted to practise in their respective state; and
- hold a current practising certificate.
It is an offence to hold yourself out as a lawyer without completing the above steps.
Set out below is a general overview of the litigation process.
Initial case assessment and investigation
Generally, prior to proceeding with any matter, a lawyer would initiate a preliminary investigation of the case. The purpose of this initial case assessment is to understand and collect information to establish the issues in dispute and the outcomes sought by the client. After an investigation of all available information, the lawyer should provide their client with an advice as to their prospects of success and options moving forward (if any). In this advice, the litigation lawyer may request their client’s further instructions or documents to verify their initial position.
Generally (and depending on the jurisdiction), court action can be initiated by way of Application or Statement of Claim (originating document).
Should a litigation lawyer be instructed to commence a court action, they will draft the pleadings, file a final version of that document with the relevant court and have a sealed (a copy stamped by the court) version served on the other side.
If the client is served with an originating document, then the next step (depending on the jurisdiction) is to prepare, file and serve their client’s defence to that originating document. The relevant state rules provide a timeframe which parties are to adhere to in such proceedings.
The discovery process
The litigation process places an ongoing obligation on both parties (and their representatives) to disclose (or exchange) documents held in their possession which relates to the issues in dispute to the other party, this is also known as discovery. The purpose of discovery is to make the parties aware of the evidence to be relied upon, and prevent surprise at the trial. This formal exchange of documents is usually commenced by serving of a list of documents that a party has in its possession or control that are directly relevant to the case.
However, it is noted that not all documents held in a party’s possession can be exchanged in discovery, especially if they are subject to privilege.
During the discovery process, the lawyer may also assess and analyse the significance of the discoverable documents. This process is very important as it may assist with identifying issues, and planning strategic ways of strengthening their client’s position.
Once the discovery is complete, the parties will (if they have not previously) commence trial preparation.
At this time, the parties may attempt to resolve the dispute through an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) method such as mediation. Prior to requesting a date for trial, the parties are expected to make genuine attempts to resolve or reduce the disputes in issue. Genuine attempts by the parties to resolve the dispute prior to requesting a trial date is beneficial to both sides as it can assist in resolving the dispute in a mutually agreeable way (as opposed to being arbitrarily decided upon by a judge) and minimises further costs and delays.
In the Magistrates court of Queensland, engaging in a settlement conference is a required preliminary step before requesting a date for trial.
The purpose of a settlement conference is to convene the parties before a court registrar to discuss and attempt to narrow or resolve the issues in dispute. If a party fails to attend the conference, the registrar can grant judgment against the absent party.
In this process, a registrar acts as a neutral facilitator. The conference is normally conducted in person (however, parties can appear by telephone upon request). The conference provides for a without prejudice discussion of the contentious issues by the parties. A settlement conference may result in several outcomes, including but not limited to:
- no agreement being reached; or
- agreement in writing between parties; or
- admissions being made to narrow the issues in dispute, and subsequently the potential length of any trial.
All discussions (save for the terms of an agreement, if reached) are confidential.
Mediation is an alternative ADR process that also assists parties in settling or narrowing the issues in dispute prior to trial (though without the presence of a court registrar). Similar to a settlement conference, mediations are without prejudice and points discussed or agreed upon cannot be relied upon by either party at a later date.
During mediation, a mediator (generally a barrister) would conduct and guide the parties through a structured process. A mediator is impartial and does not give advice or make decisions. A mediator also creates an environment where all parties have the opportunity to speak and be heard so that they can eventually agree on a mutually agreeable outcome.
Actively taking part in ADR can save time, stress, further legal fees and court costs.
Settlements in litigation cases
The parties are entitled (and encouraged) to settle their dispute at any time. Where appropriate, a lawyer may encourage the parties to settle the dispute. However, a lawyer cannot settle the dispute without their client’s instructions.
Once the terms are finalised, the lawyers for each party will organise the terms to be formalised in an appropriate deed, copies of which will be provided to and executed by each party.
The appeal process
After delivery of initial judgment of a civil court in Australia, if it is disputed, parties can appeal that decision to a superior court. Lawyers can assist their client in identifying the grounds of appeal, such as a significant and relevant error of fact or law decided in the first instance. The appealing party proceeds by submitting the necessary evidence and the requisite legal documents in order to start the appeal process.
Overall, the court process can be a confusing and overwhelming experience. It is important for individuals to understand their rights and obligations when dealing with the courts. Litigation lawyers at Rostron Carlyle Rojas Lawyers have experience in, and can assist with, all types of legal proceedings.
The above information is intended only as general information and should not be interpreted or relied upon as legal advice. If you require assistance to understand your rights and obligations when dealing with the courts, please do not hesitate to contact our office.