Adam Harris, Litigation Department

What are the steps of a lawsuit if I want to sue someone or if I get sued?

Other than watching Suits or The Good Wife on television, most people are not familiar with the steps of a lawsuit. While some lawyers deal with lawsuits and courtrooms on a daily basis, being sued or needing to start a lawsuit against someone can be a daunting and foreign process.

So, what are the typical steps in a lawsuit? There is not one typical court case and the order for some of the steps below can change. However, I have outlined some of the usual steps you will have to go through if you are sued or if you need to sue someone.

‘Civil litigation’ generally refers to court proceedings to deal with private disputes between individuals or companies where compensation (money) or another legal remedy is pursued by one party against the other. Such disputes can involve things such as compensation due to personal injuries, land claims or related disagreements, employment or wrongful dismissal issues, financial losses or actual damage to property because someone was careless, breach of contract, disputes surrounding wills or inheritances, or debt collection, among others. Cases having to do with criminal, family relationships, immigration and tax law can have different processes.

In Nova Scotia, civil litigation cases typically are dealt with through the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia or the Small Claims Court of Nova Scotia (if the amount in dispute is under $25,000, for a more simplified procedure).  A lawyer with experience in the civil litigation process, as well as the applicable law, can be valuable. It can save costs and improve your chances of success.  For example, some lawyers may have a field of practice which includes preparing contracts or drafting wills, but may not have significant experience in handling disputes which might arise from a contract or a will.

When a new client comes into a law firm for help with a dispute, a “conflict search” will usually be conducted to make sure there are no conflicts to prevent the lawyer from acting. A lawyer must ensure that she or he is able to represent clients with utmost and undivided loyalty in their disputes.  To do so, the lawyer must first make sure there have not been other matters in which the firm has been involved, which would “conflict” with the lawyer’s ability to do so.  Most lawyers will then do an initial intake – gathering information and details about your issue.

A demand letter could be a possible solution to a client’s issue. Sometimes a strongly worded letter from a lawyer can resolve an issue promptly without going through the formal court process.

If not, the first step of a lawsuit is to start a claim by filing material with the court outlining what is in dispute, what the client seeks and initiating the process the client seeks to pursue. This could be a Notice of Action or Application and a Statement of Claim, although there are a few other approaches depending on the issue and process involved.  How your dispute is framed and the process selected at the outset can impact how a lawsuit will unfold as well as the costs to you.  It is important that these things be considered by your lawyer early on and before anything is filed with the court.  If the other party defends the matter, they will also file a Notice of Defence or Contest, disputing the claim. Depending on who else is involved, there could be a ‘counterclaim’ or a ‘third party claim’.

If you are defending or responding to a lawsuit, it is important for your lawyer to assess how the other party has initiated the process, whether what the other party has done in starting the lawsuit is procedurally appropriate and, if not, whether there is anything which can be done about it.  Your lawyer being familiar with the various options and procedural issues can be important.

There are also time limitations within which you must place most disputes before the court.  If you do not take such a step within those time limitations, you may lose your ability to assert your claims or rights in the dispute.

Another key step in a lawsuit is document disclosure. Typically, with some exceptions, both parties exchange documents and other evidence relevant to the dispute. There may then be what are called oral examinations for discovery, also called ‘depositions’ in the United States, where each side will get to pose questions to the person involved, in order to get more information and their side of the story.

The final step is a trial or hearing. This can be in front of a judge or a jury.  Disputes can settle at any point along the process between starting or defending a lawsuit and the ultimate trial or hearing. Attempts to resolve a dispute before a trial can involve mediation, judicial settlement conference or other negotiation between the parties.

There may also be other steps along the way, if other issues pop up, such as legal research, motions, pre-trial hearing or other court appearances.  How a dispute progresses can have an element of uncertainty.  Much can depend on the positions or tactics encountered from the other side. Having a lawyer with experience in navigating through what can sometimes be unpredictable waters of litigation can count for a lot.

If you are involved in a legal dispute, contact our office to discuss how we might help. A legal dispute and court case can be daunting and complicated without assistance.  Speaking with and hiring an experienced lawyer who understands the process and the law can help you put your best case forward.  We have lawyers with practices devoted to civil ligation.  We may be able to assist you in understanding your rights under the laws in Nova Scotia and get you the solution you need.  If you have questions or would like to discuss this topic further, please contact our Litigation Department at 1-902-752-8441 or 1-888-752-8441.


*This article is meant to be for information purposes only and is not intended to be legal advice or opinion. If you have any further questions please consult a lawyer. Many of the statements in this blog post are general principles which may vary depending on each person’s case.