DIFFICULTY: Legal assistance is recommended
Initial Filing Fee: $100 to $250
North Carolina supports a number of different civil cases that fall into three major categories: Domestic, Contracts, and Personal Injury.
Domestic cases include:
• Child support
• Custody and visitation
• Division of marital property
• Restraining orders
When people think of civil cases, they are most often thinking of Contracts. In Contract cases, you will file a case if you are owed money or services, or if you have a landlord/tenant problem. In North Carolina, where you file depends on the value and type of your case, as follows:
• Small Claims for anything $5000 or less, and most landlord/tenant disputes
• District Court for actions less than $10,000 and all domestic cases
• Superior Court for anything greater than $10,000
In order to speed up the process, North Carolina allows electronic filing in many types of cases. This means you can file the initial complaint online. You will still have to pay all the pertinent fees, but it can be done by credit card. Filing online means you often don’t have to provide an additional copy to be served to the defendant, as the court will print it, but you will still have to pay any service fees associated with serving the defendant.
Civil cases do not always seek money. They can seek custody, request a legal order for someone stop to doing something (called an injunction), or they can serve to require a return of personal property. The type of complaint you file varies greatly in the state of North Carolina, and there are over 200 different civil case forms to choose from.
Step 1: Decide What Type of Case You Have
First you have to know what kind of case you are filing. You will choose between domestic, contracts, and personal injury. Contracts are any time you are owed money or services. This can include when people have taken your property and you wish to have it returned. Personal injury is for malpractice or negligence on the part of a person or business that resulted in harm to you or a loved one. Domestic disputes usually cover divorces, custody, and restraining orders.
Step 2: Choose the County to File In
You need to file in the county where the person or business you are filing against is located, except in the case of restraining orders. For protection orders you can file in your county, the defendant’s county, or the county where the abuse took place. Some people choose a court setting that will be more favorable (for example, if the person has great influence in their community, you will want to file in another county). Once you have determined the appropriate county, you will fill out the proper forms.
Step 3: Determine Which Court to File With
The amount you are suing for will determine which court your case falls under. If your case is worth less than $5,000, it goes to small claims. Less than $10,000 goes to district court, and the superior court is reserved for anything larger than $10,000. If you are a landlord you will likely be in small claims, and for domestic cases such as divorce you will be in district court. Be sure that the paperwork you fill out is matched to the correct court for your case.
Step 4: File a Complaint
Be sure that everything in your complaint is clearly worded. If you fill out the forms correctly, it should spell out all the information you need to provide. In addition, you will also want to attach any receipts, contract copies, or any other paperwork relevant to your claim. Photographs make compelling evidence, especially in cases regarding damages.
When you file the complaint, you can do so in person or online. The online version is more difficult if you have lots of supporting evidence to submit, though you can bring it down after the fact. North Carolina is one of the few states that allows electronic filing in civil cases.
Step 5: Serve the Defendant
The defendant must be served by someone they don’t know. It is usually best to pay the court fee to have the sheriff serve the papers to the defendant, but you can also hire an outside person to serve the defendant. In cases where the person cannot be found, in North Carolina you can serve the defendant through publication, i.e. in a newspaper. In all cases, they have ten to 15 days to respond to the complaint. This response can request an extension. After that time, a hearing will be set.
Step 6: Mediation Attempt
North Carolina is one of the few states that requires mediation. This is an attempt to reduce the load on the court, and this mediation can often result in a positive outcome for both parties. If mediation is successful, you will go to court to finalize the paperwork. If it is unsuccessful, you will then settle the dispute in court. If the defendant does not respond at all, you go directly to court for a summary judgment.
Step 7: Attend Hearing
At the hearing, both sides will present their cases and evidence. You should bring any relevant information with you and have prepared witnesses on your behalf. You should also stick to the facts. You need to present tangible items that can lend substance to your claim and back up your arguments. The hearing is where the judge will issue a final decree. While you can appeal the decision, it is better if the first decision ends up in your favor. Whatever order is handed down, you must abide by it until the time of an appeal, or for all perpetuity.