What is Litigation?
Going to court is sometimes referred to as "litigation". Litigation is the process of bringing disputes to court to have them resolved by a judge on the basis of evidence presented by those involved in the dispute.
Litigation can be criminal or civil, but this series of guidebooks deals only with civil litigation, not including family law disputes. For family law disputes, see Family.
Any party, including individuals, partnerships, corporations, or other legal entities can be involved in civil litigation. Civil litigation deals with torts (the legal term for a civil wrong, injury or harm), contractual, and other disputes recognized by the law.
A civil litigation case can be called an action, a matter, a lawsuit, a proceeding or a case. While all these terms are not entirely interchangeable, you may hear or see your case referred to by any of these terms. In a civil case that goes to trial, proof is based on a "balance of probabilities". This means that a judge only needs to be convinced that it is more probable than not that one side is right.
Judgment is then given in favour of one party. When the case has concluded, costs may be awarded to the successful party to cover part of their expenses in coming to court (called “costs”). The guidebook on Costs in the Supreme Court covers this topic in more detail.
The Litigation Process
The more you know and understand about the litigation process, the fewer difficulties you will have. Knowledge will also help you prepare for:
- the cost of the proceeding;
- the length of time it might take to get a final resolution;
- the complicated and personal questions you might have to ask or answer;
- the amount of time and money it takes to prepare for all aspects of litigation, including starting a case, moving it through the court process and finally, trial.
The SupremeCourtBC.ca website is the leading source of information for British Columbians who bring a lawsuit to the Supreme Court. The site includes 26 Guidebooks for Self-Representing Litigants. In addition, free legal help is provided through “Ask JES” a live chat service available weekdays from 11am to 2pm. During offline hours, users can submit questions to receive a response by email. Visit SupremeCourtBC.ca.
To learn more about advancing your civil lawsuit in Supreme Court, it will be worthwhile to read the guidebooks, examine the attached court forms, and review the referenced legislation.
Starting a Case
Most cases are started with a "Notice of civil claim", but some types of cases must be started with a document called a "Petition". You must use the correct document to start your legal action. You do not have a choice about how to start your lawsuit – the Supreme Court Rules dictate the correct procedure. If in doubt, you should get legal advice to answer this key question.
In very general terms, cases relating to wills and estate matters, interest in land, or the property of people under a disability (such as infants) are started with a petition. It is very important to read the full text of Rule 2-1 to understand the particular cases that must be commenced by petition. All other cases are started by filing a notice of civil claim, and are called “actions”.
A notice of civil claim and a petition are documents that notify both the court and the people you are suing that you have started a court proceeding. These documents, as well as the documents that are filed in response to them, are called pleadings. For more complete information about starting a case, see the guidebook called, Starting an Action by Notice of Civil Claim.
In general, people who start a lawsuit are called:
- a plaintiff (if the action is started by a notice of civil claim); or
- a petitioner (if the action is started by a petition).
People who defend a lawsuit are called:
- a defendant (if the action was started by notice of civil claim); or
- a petition respondent (if the action was started by a petition).
You will find it helpful to consult a lawyer before you begin any litigation. A lawyer can give you information and assistance with every stage of the litigation whether you are suing or being sued. This is true even if you decide to do most of the work yourself. Consulting a lawyer – even if only for a short time – can save you time, money and difficulties in the long run. A lawyer can also put your problem into perspective by giving you neutral, objective advice.
The following may be helpful to see how things might take place as your case progresses. Not all steps will be needed in all litigation, but this list gives general details of what is likely to happen in most cases.
Actions Commenced by Notice of Civil Claim
- Decide whether to bring an action in the Provincial Court (small claims division) or the Supreme Court (see guidebook, Choosing Small Claims or Fast Track Litigation).
- Plaintiff starts the action by filing and serving a notice of civil claim (see guidebook, Starting an Action by Notice of Civil Claim).
- Defendant files and serves a response (see guidebook, Defending an Action Started by Notice of Civil Claim).
- Defendant files and delivers a counterclaim or third party claim, if applicable (see guidebook, Defending an Action Started by Notice of Civil Claim).
- If required, plaintiff files and delivers a response to the counterclaim.
- If required, third party files and serves a response.
- Plaintiff or defendant decides whether to proceed by fast track litigation (see guidebook, Fast Track Litigation).
- Plaintiff and defendant start discovery process (discovery of documents; examinations for discovery; interrogatories) (see guidebook, The Discovery Process).
- Plaintiff and defendant may need to make pre-trial applications in chambers to obtain directions or assistance from the court (see guidebook, Applications to Court).
- Plaintiff and defendant consider resolving case without going to trial (see guidebook, Resolving Your Case Before Trial).
- Plaintiff and defendant prepare for trial by setting trial date; considering expert opinions; preparing documents for trial (see guidebook, Trials in the Supreme Court).
- Plaintiff and defendant attend the trial and receive judgment and award of costs (see guidebook, Costs in the Supreme Court).
- Plaintiff or defendant (winning party) prepares and files court order (see guidebook, Drafting Court Orders).
- Plaintiff or defendant enforces judgment (see guidebook, Enforcing Court Orders).
Proceedings Commenced by Petition
Appearing in Court
Court is a formal and serious setting. Make sure that you do everything possible to make a good impression when you appear in the courtroom. Here are some tips to help you:
- Dress in a professional and conservative way.
- Be on time. A great many people will be waiting to get started and you don’t want to make a bad impression by keeping them waiting. The hours of the BC Supreme Court are from 10:00 a.m. – 12:30 p.m., and then from 2:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m. Sometimes an ongoing proceeding will begin earlier or run later if more time is needed. The court clerk concludes the day by saying what time and on what date the proceeding will continue.
- Use professional language. Don’t use slang or swear words. Follow the guidelines below when speaking to a judge or a master.
- Don’t chew gum or bring food or drinks into the courtroom.
- Turn off your cell phone and other electronic devices.
- Address your remarks to the judge or master, not to the lawyer on the other side.
- Use court fomalities. Always stand when speaking to the judge or master. When you are in Supreme Court, the proper way to address the judge is "My lord" or "My lady". If you are appearing before a master address him or her as "Your honour".
- Speak up. Courtrooms can be noisy and it is important that the judge or master hear you clearly. You might also need to remind your witnesses to speak loudly so they can be heard.
- Always be polite. If someone is saying something you think is wrong, wait until they finish speaking before you make your point.
- Be prepared. You will make a better impression if you come to court with your position prepared and organized. Make a checklist of all the things you need to take with you and all the things you will need to tell the judge or master.
- Use a formal style when addressing everyone, whether in writing or in person. No one is ever offended because you call him or her by his or her formal title; but some people might be offended if you are too casual. Refer to other parties and witnesses as “Mr. X” or “Mrs./Ms. Y”, rather than by their first names, even if you know them very well.
- When a judge or master enters or leaves the courtroom, a court clerk will say, “Order in court.” At that time, you should stand you should stand and then bow to the judge or master before he or she takes their seat.
- When the judge or master gives his or her decision, take notes to ensure that you understand the result. If you need to have something clarified, ask for clarification right away, while all the parties are still in the courtroom.
Last reviewed: March 2016