What is Litigation?
In cases where parties have contracted to resolve their disputes out of court, a mediator can be hired to find an amicable compromise between the parties. This mediation (or, in some cases, arbitration) reduces the number of cases that go to trial so the already crowded courts are not completely overwhelmed.
There are two kinds of litigation: civil and criminal. When someone breaks a state or federal law, he commits an offense against society. The government, on behalf of the community, begins a criminal proceeding to hold the offender responsible. A criminal litigation is therefore between the government and the accused, or defendant. The government is represented by a prosecutor, typically a district attorney (for state prosecutions) or a federal prosecutor (for federal crimes). The defendant is represented by either a private criminal attorney or a public defender appointed by the state. (Occasionally, usually against the advice of both his lawyer and the judge, a defendant chooses to represent himself, or acts pro se.)
Most states divide crimes into misdemeanors and felonies. A misdemeanor is any offense that results in less than one year of jail time. Petty theft, possession of a small amount of drugs, or breaking and entering is some examples of misdemeanors. Many misdemeanors can result in a fine or instead of jail time. Felonies are more serious offenses that virtually always result in prison terms of more than one year and may include a fine as well as incarceration. Murder, racketeering, rape and kidnapping are all felony offenses. In some states, serious felonies, such as the murder of a policeman or murder with premeditation, are capital offenses, in which cases a criminal defendant might face the death penalty. A person accused of a crime is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
A civil action encompasses virtually any non-criminal court proceeding. It can be a private action between two citizens, a proceeding by one person against the state, a suit by an individual against a corporation or any combination thereof. The party bringing the suit, known as the plaintiff or petitioner, usually is seeking a sum of money (damages) from another party (the defendant or respondent) to compensate her for a claimed injury or loss. Sometimes the remedy sought involves not money but performance; one party wants the court to compel another either to do something he is obligated to do or to stop doing something that is injurious to one bringing suit. In a civil action, the case turns not on the defendant's guilt but on the issue of liability -- a party is found either liable or not liable. The burden of proof required to establish liability in a civil suit is generally a lower threshold than the "guilt beyond a reasonable doubt" required in a criminal trial.
In the case of both criminal and civil litigation, the parties may never actually make it to court; they might come to a mutual compromise before the trial date. Parties to a civil suit might reach a financial agreement or other settlement, while the prosecution and defense in a criminal case might agree to a plea bargain, under which a prosecutor offers a reduced charge or sentence in exchange for the defendant's plea of guilt.