Do I Have to Go to Court if I Want to Sue Someone?
Reviewed by Carina Jenkins, J.D.
A lawsuit can help you recover money after a car accident, wrongful termination or injury. While you may be eager to right a wrong, spending hours or days in court can be overwhelming.
People resolve many legal matters without going to court, but each case differs. Your best bet to find out if you’ll need to appear in court is to talk to an attorney.
Whether you need to appear in court to sue someone can depend on several factors:
- The type of case
- Where you're located
- Whether you have an attorney
- Whether you're able to reach a settlement agreement
Laws, including rules of civil procedure for the relevant jurisdictions, control civil lawsuits. These rules can influence whether a court appearance is required to sue someone. Federal courts and each state typically have their own rules, so you'll need to check local laws.
Many courts allow lawyers to initiate lawsuits through an online filing system. However, you may need to visit the courthouse to file a lawsuit if you don't have a lawyer because some courts only give lawyers access to online systems. Additionally, unrepresented parties may need a court clerk or judge to sign a summons that will be served on the defendant.
Local court procedures can vary even within a state, so reviewing the court's website or speaking with a court clerk is wise. Procedures may also depend on the amount of money involved in the lawsuit. For example, small claims court usually follows procedures quite different from those for cases involving large sums of money.
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Even if you can file a lawsuit without going to court, you may need to appear later. While parties and their lawyers often resolve civil cases through demand letters and settlement agreements, not every case can be resolved without a court appearance. If parties to the case have disagreements about legal issues or can't settle the case, you may need to appear in court.
The court can address many issues in a civil case without court appearances. Lawyers may file documents called motions or briefs asking the court to rule on things like whether a certain claim, defense or evidence should be permitted. Judges often issue orders on these issues without requiring the parties to appear in court.
You can expect to participate in more court hearings if you don't have a lawyer. Judges may require more court appearances to ensure that unrepresented parties understand what is happening in the case. In addition, lawyers in civil suits are often allowed to appear on behalf of the client to handle legal or procedural issues. If you don't have a lawyer, you'll need to appear for these hearings.
Occasionally, the court may require parties to appear in court or testify. For example, the judge may require a court appearance if there are concerns about the plaintiff's competence.
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Many civil cases are resolved without a trial when the parties reach a settlement agreement. However, if parties can't settle the case, the court must hold a trial.
In most cases, you must attend the trial and testify about the case. A judge or jury will determine who's at fault and whether to award damages. Whether a judge or jury determines the case depends on the type of case and how much money is at issue. Trials can be brief or may go on for many days, depending on the issues and evidence.
Small claims courts are designed to handle disputes over simple legal matters and small amounts of money. Rules on when cases belong in small claims courts vary by location, but these courts generally handle disputes involving less than a few thousand dollars.
Small claims court allows for simplified procedures and faster resolutions, and you may be required to represent yourself instead of getting a lawyer. Although the process may be more straightforward, court appearances are usually required.
The majority of lawsuits settle without going to trial, and many parties avoid substantial court appearances. You may be able to sue someone without appearing in court if:
- The case doesn't need to be filed in small claims court
- You hire a lawyer
- There are no pretrial legal issues that require your presence in court
- Parties reach a settlement agreement before trial
Speaking to a lawyer can help you better understand local court procedures and what types of court appearances may be necessary.
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