Demystifying Civil Litigation: Understanding the Stages of a Lawsuit
A civil lawsuit refers to a legal action in which one or more individuals accuse others of violating civil laws. These legal proceedings are initiated when an individual, known as the plaintiff, sues another individual or organization, known as the defendant. Civil litigation arises when one person causes harm or wrongs another person. Both parties involved are commonly referred to as the parties or litigants.
Civil suits are typically used to resolve conflicts between private citizens, such as disagreements concerning property damage, personal injury, or breach of contract. In other words, civil litigation aims to settle disputes that do not involve criminal offenses, and it operates under the governance of the Code of Civil Procedure , 1908 (CPC).
Civil law in India is regulated by various legislations, including the Indian Contract Act, 1872, The Trademarks Act, 1999, The Transfer of Property Act, 1882, among others. In essence, civil litigation encompasses a combination of different acts and regulations that aim to provide remedies for matters of a civil or commercial nature. The focus of civil litigation is on resolving damages and compensating the affected party, rather than imposing punishments or penalties as seen in criminal litigation. There are instances where offenses have both civil and criminal remedies as guaranteed by the respective laws.
Stages of Civil Lawsuit
Civil litigation follows a series of procedural steps to reach a final judgment. These lawsuits predominantly involve monetary transactions or property disputes and are primarily concerned with claims for damages or compensation for losses.
1. Plaint : The filing of a plaint initiates the entire legal process in the Civil Law system, making it the starting point for all pleadings in a case. According to Order 7 CPC, the plaint must contain specific “particulars”.
The plaint must includes the following:
(i) The name of the court where the suit is to be filed.
(ii) The plaintiff’s name, description, and place of residence.
(iii) The defendant’s name, description, and place of residence, to the extent known.
(iv) If the plaintiff or defendant is a minor or of unsound mind, a statement indicating this.
(v) The facts that establish the cause of action and the time it occurred.
(vi) Evidence demonstrating that the court has jurisdiction.
(vii) The relief or remedy sought by the plaintiff.
(viii) If the plaintiff allows a set off or relinquishes a portion of the claim, the amount permitted or relinquished.
(ix) A statement indicating the value of the subject matter of the lawsuit for the purpose of determining jurisdiction and court fees. If the court determines that the plaint should be filed with another court, it may be returned, and the plaintiff will be intimated accordingly
The court holds the authority to reject the plaint in certain situations. These include instances where the cause of action is not disclosed, the relief claimed is undervalued and the plaintiff fails to rectify the valuation within the specified time, insufficient court fee stamp is paid, the suit appears to be time-barred, or the plaint fails to disclose any cause of action.
It is important to note that when rejecting the plaint, the court must reject it in its entirety and not just a portion of it. As per Order 7, Rule 13 of the CPC, this rejection of the plaint on the aforementioned grounds does not prevent the plaintiff from presenting a fresh plaint in the future.
2. Summons : Summons is a legal instrument employed by the court to initiate a civil action or proceedings and serves as a means to establish jurisdiction over a party. Service of Summons is a procedural step directed towards a designated officer, requiring them to inform the individual named in the summons that a legal action has been initiated against them in the issuing court. Furthermore, it mandates the said individual to appear on a specified day and respond to the claims presented in the aforementioned action.
Once a suit is instituted, the court has the authority to issue summons to the defendant, summoning them to appear and address the claims made against them. The defendant who receives a summons can choose to appear in person or be represented by a qualified pleader who possesses appropriate instructions. Alternatively, the defendant may also be accompanied by a person who is capable of providing comprehensive answers to any inquiries that may arise.
In order to expedite the process of submitting a reply and facilitating the adjudication of the claim, the court may direct the filing of a written statement on the day of the defendant’s appearance, issuing suitable summons for this purpose. Failure to comply with such direction may result in an Ex-parte judgment, as stipulated under Order 8, Rule 10 CPC.
3. Appearance of parties : On the day fixed in the summons the defendant is required to appear and answer and the parties shall attend the court unless the hearing is adjourned to a future day fixed by the court, if the defendant is absent court may proceed ex-parte. Where on the day so fixed it is found that summons has not been served upon defendant is consequence of failure of plaintiff to pay the court fee or postal charges the court may dismiss the suit. Where neither the plaintiff nor the defendant appears the court may dismiss the suit. Such dismissal does not bar fresh suit in respect of same cause of action.
4. Ex-parte Decree : A decree against the Defendant, without affording him a hearing or in his absence or in the absence of his defense, may be issued under the following circumstances:
- When a party who is required to submit a written statement fails to do so within the allotted or court-fixed time, the court shall render judgment against that party or issue any appropriate order in relation to the suit, as deemed suitable by the court. Subsequently, upon pronouncement of such judgment, a decree shall be formulated. (Order 8, Rule 10 CPC)
- If the defendant has not filed a pleading, the court is authorized to render judgment based on the facts presented in the plaintiff’s plaint, except in cases involving individuals with disabilities. (Order 8, Rule 5(2) CPC)
- In situations where the plaintiff appears before the court but the defendant fails to appear when the suit is called for hearing, provided that the summons has been properly served, the court may issue an order that the suit will be heard in the defendant’s absence, also known as an ex parte hearing. (Order 9, Rule 6(1)(a) CPC)
If an exparte decree is passed and the defendant satisfies that he was prevented by sufficient cause then the exparte Decree can be set aside.
5. Interlocutory Proceedings : The duration between the commencement and resolution of litigation is typically quite long. In certain situations, it becomes necessary for the court to intervene in order to uphold the existing state of affairs that existed at the time the litigation was initiated. This concept, known as “status quo” refers to the preservation of the current state of affairs on a specific day.
In this context, interlocutory orders serve as temporary, provisional, or interim measures, as opposed to being final in nature. They do not definitively determine the cause of action but rather address certain interim matters related to the underlying cause.
6. Written Statement : In accordance with Order 8 CPC, the defendant is obligated to submit a written statement containing their defense either during or before the first hearing, or within any other time period granted by the court.
If the defendant challenges the maintainability of the suit or asserts that the transaction is void, it must be explicitly stated in the written statement. A mere general denial of the allegations presented in the plaint is insufficient; the denial must be specific and address the substance of the matter. Any factual allegation in the plaint that is not specifically denied or admitted in the pleading, either explicitly or through necessary implication, will be deemed as admitted.
Through the 2002 amendment, the defendant is required to present the written statement within 90 days from the date of receiving the summons. However, the court has the discretion to allow the defendant to file the written statement on a different specified day if the defendant fails to do so within a period of 30 days. Nevertheless, this extended period for filing the written statement should not exceed 90 days from the date of receiving the summons.
7. Production of Documents : After the submission of the defendant’s written statement, the next stage in the lawsuit involves the exchange of documents. At this stage, both parties are required to present any relevant documents within their possession or control to the court. In situations where parties rely on documents that are not in their possession, they must make an application to the court to issue summons to the relevant authority or individuals who possess those documents. The parties are also required to deposit the necessary costs for the production of such documents with the court.
8. Examination of parties : as per Order 10 CPC, The examination of parties is an important stage that follows their appearance in court. During the first hearing of the suit, the court is responsible for determining from each party or their representative whether they admit or deny the factual allegations stated in the plaint or written statement. These admissions and denials are duly recorded. The examination may take the form of an oral questioning.
If a party, or the party’s pleader, refuses or is unable to answer any essential question, the court may instruct the party in question to remain present in the court. Failure to comply with this instruction may lead the court to issue appropriate orders as it deems appropriate.
9. Discovery and Inspection : as given in Order 11 CPC, The objective of the process of discovery and inspection of documents and facts is to facilitate the parties in obtaining the necessary information about the facts that need to be proven. With the permission of the court, the plaintiff or defendant has the option to submit written interrogatories to the opposing parties. These interrogatories must be answered and pertain to relevant matters concerning the case.
10. Admission : according to Order 12 one party has the right to request the other party, by serving a notice, to admit the authenticity of a document within a period of seven days from the date of notice, subject to reasonable objections. If the party receiving the notice refuses or neglects to admit the document after such notice, the costs incurred in proving the document will be borne by the party who neglected or refused, regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit, unless the court directs otherwise. The party seeking to prove the document is not entitled to receive any costs associated with proving the document unless the notice was provided, except in cases where the court considers the omission of the notice as a means to save expenses. It is worth noting that this particular procedure is seldom followed by the advocates representing the parties.
11. Framing of Issue : The next step in the process involves the framing of issues, a task exclusively assigned to the judge. The framing of issues is done in accordance with the provisions outlined in Order 14, CPC.
As per Rule 1, Sub-rule 1, 2 and 3,Issues arise when one party affirms a material proposition of fact or law, while the other party denies it, where the material propositions are those propositions of law or fact that the plaintiff must allege to establish a right to sue, or that the defendant must allege to establish their defense. Each material proposition, affirmed by one party and denied by the other, shall constitute a distinct issue. These issues are categorized as either issues of fact or issues of law.
12. Summoning and Attendance of Witnesses : in accordance with Order 16, on the appointed court date, and no later than 15 days after the settlement of issues, the parties are required to submit to the court a list of witnesses they intend to call for the purpose of providing testimony or presenting documents.
13. Hearing Of Suits And Examination Of Witnesses : as per Order 18, the plaintiff holds the initial right to present their case, except when the defendant acknowledges the facts alleged by the plaintiff but argues that, based on either legal grounds or additional facts presented by the defendant, the plaintiff is not entitled to any form of relief. In such instances, the defendant has the right to commence the proceedings.
The plaintiff must present their case before the judge and submit the previously marked evidence. Any evidence that was not previously marked will not be considered by the court. The defendant’s advocate will then cross-examine the plaintiff. Additionally, the witnesses from the plaintiff’s side must appear in court and will also undergo cross-examination by the defendant’s lawyer.
Next, the defendant will present their version of events, supported by their own witnesses and evidence. The evidence must have been previously marked by the court to be admissible. The plaintiff’s lawyer will then conduct the cross-examination of the defendant.
14. Argument : Once the presentation of evidence and cross-examination from both sides is complete, the suit is scheduled for the argument stage. At this point, after the conclusion of evidence, both the plaintiff and defendant have the opportunity to provide a comprehensive overview of their respective cases and the evidence presented to the judge during the final argument session.
15. Judgment : Judgment refers to the ruling given by the judge, upon which a decree is based. Once the case has been heard, the court is required to deliver the judgment in open court, either within one month from the completion of arguments or as soon as reasonably possible thereafter. Prior to pronouncing the judgment, the judge will schedule a specific day in advance for this purpose.
16. Preparation of Decree : According to Order 20, Rule 6 and 6A, when a judgment is rendered by a judge, it is the responsibility of the relevant clerk to draft a decree. The decree must be in accordance with the judgment. It should include the suit number, the names and descriptions of the parties, their registered addresses, as well as details of the claim. Furthermore, the decree must explicitly state the relief granted or the final determination of the suit.
17. Appeal, Review, Revision :
(i) Appeal : An appeal can take the form of an appeal from an order or an appeal from a decree. It is important to note that not all orders are eligible for appeal, as the Code of Civil Procedure provides complete discretion in determining which orders are appealable (as outlined in Order 43). To initiate an appeal, it must be filed within the prescribed limitation period before the appropriate appellate court. The limitation period for an appeal to the High Court is 90 days, while for an appeal to the District Court, it is 30 days. If the limitation period has expired, an application for condonation of delay is also required to be submitted.
(ii) Review : The scope of the right to review under the Civil Procedure Code is quite limited. A review application can only be considered under the following circumstances:
- When it pertains to a decree or order for which no appeal is permitted, or if an appeal is allowed, but has not been filed.
- When the appellant is aggrieved due to the discovery of a new and significant matter of evidence, which, despite exercising reasonable diligence, was not known or could not be presented during the time of the original decree. Alternatively, a review application may be filed based on a mistake apparent on the face of the record or for any other valid reason. In such cases, the opposing party will be given an opportunity to be heard once a review application has been granted.
(ii) Revision : Under specific circumstances, the High Court, in its revision jurisdiction, has the authority to intervene in cases decided by subordinate courts.
If a subordinate court is found to have:
- Exercised a jurisdiction that it does not possess according to the law,
- Failed to exercise a jurisdiction that it does possess, or
- Acted illegally or with significant irregularities while exercising its jurisdiction,
The High Court may request the record of the case for review. This applies to cases where no appeal is available.
18. Execution of Decree : as per Order 21, execution is the process through which a decree-holder enforces the fulfillment of a decree or order against the judgment-debtor. It serves as a means for the decree-holder to obtain the benefits and outcomes determined by the judgment. Execution is considered complete when the judgment-creditor or decree-holder successfully receives the monetary or non-monetary assets awarded to them by the judgment, decree, or order.
Civil suits play a pivotal role in upholding justice and resolving disputes in a fair and orderly manner. They provide individuals and entities with a legal recourse to protect their rights, seek remedies for harm suffered, and enforce contractual obligations. The importance of following the appropriate procedures in civil suits cannot be overstated. Adhering to established legal procedures ensures transparency, fairness, and the protection of all parties involved. It promotes consistency in the administration of justice, enables the presentation of evidence, and facilitates the examination of legal arguments. By following the prescribed procedures, civil suits uphold the principles of due process, allowing for a comprehensive and thorough consideration of the facts and applicable laws. This ensures that the outcomes of civil suits are based on a sound legal framework, bolstering public trust in the judicial system. Ultimately, the proper adherence to procedural rules in civil suits serves to safeguard the integrity of the legal process and ensures that justice is served equitably for all.