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Trial Courts: Types of Cases

There are two kinds of cases that are heard in the trial courts: civil cases and criminal cases.

Eighty percent of conflicts that come to state courts are civil cases. Civil cases involve conflicts between people or institutions, such as businesses. A civil case usually begins when a person or organization determines that a problem cannot be solved without going to court. In civil cases, one (or more) of these persons brings suit by filing a complaint in court. Once filed, the lawsuit begins. Filing a lawsuit is the first step of litigation, seeking resolution of a legal dispute by judicial process.

Civil Cases
Divorce and related lawsuits (child support, custody, etc.) account for a very large number of civil cases. Cases involving contracts (written or oral agreements) are also frequent.

Personal injury cases are another common kind of civil case. In personal injury cases, a person is injured and brings a lawsuit against the person at fault seeking money damages. A common type of personal injury case comes from automobile collisions. An auto collision gives rise to a civil case if one driver sues the other, or if a passenger in one of the cars sues either driver. An auto collision might also lead to a criminal case, if it involves allegations of a crime such as drunken driving or leaving the scene of an accident. A person who sues in a civil case generally wants the court to order the person at fault to pay them money damages.

Civil lawsuits can also arise from every day interactions. For example, imagine two neighbors share a common sidewalk and the sidewalk needs to be repaired. A dispute arises because the two neighbors cannot agree who should have to pay for the repairs. Now let's say one neighbor paid to have the sidewalk repaired and now wants the other neighbor to pay for half of the costs since they share the sidewalk. If all other negotiations fail, the first neighbor may bring a lawsuit against the other for the court to resolve the dispute.

The most common kind of civil cases are traffic violations, or infractions. Because traffic violations are a way of breaking the law, most people would assume traffic violations would be considered criminal. But because people cannot be imprisoned for traffic violations, the legal system considers these infractions civil. The classification of traffic violations as civil is one reason why the number of civil cases is so high.

General Civil Cases
Civil Plenary. Contract cases, property cases, and cases seeking to start or stop someone from doing something.
Civil Tort. Cases where someone is suing for a "wrong" that is not a crime, but has resulted in some injury or damage. Example: car accident.
Small Claims. Disputes involving less than $6,000.
Domestic Relations. Divorce and related lawsuits.
Reciprocal Support. Cases to force a parent to pay child support.
Mental Health. Cases that involve having a person committed (sent) to a mental health institution.
Protective Order. Cases where a person seeks an order from the court to make someone stay away from them. An example is an abused woman seeking protection from her abusive boyfriend.
Civil Miscellaneous. All other civil cases that are not easily categorized.
Infractions. Usually traffic violations.
Ordinance Violations. Violations of local laws such as noise controls.


Probate and Adoption Civil Cases
Adoption. Cases where a person or couple wants to adopt (raise as their own child) a child whose birth parents cannot care for or raise the child.
Adoption History. Cases seeking to release sealed adoption records.
Estates. Cases deciding how to divide or distribute a person's property and things when the person has died.
Guardianship. Cases to decide who should take care of another person such as a child, an elderly person, or someone who is mentally handicapped.
Trusts. Cases to interpret a "trust" which is a legal fund set aside for the benefit of another person. For example, a parent sets up a "trust" for his or her child's education.

Criminal Cases
Criminal cases involve enforcing laws. In criminal cases, the government (here, the state of Indiana) brings charges against the person accused of committing a crime, such as robbery, murder, or drunk driving. An example of a criminal case would be if Joe Citizen were arrested for suspicion of killing someone. The state of Indiana would bring criminal charges against Joe Citizen for murder. Joe Citizen would then go to court to stand trial on the charges.

Generally in a civil case the person suing is seeking money. The person who files the lawsuit wants the court to order someone to pay them money. In a criminal case, the party pressing charges, the state of Indiana, is seeking punishment. The state of Indiana wants the court to order the person who committed the crime to be punished, either by having to go to prison, or having to pay a fine for committing a crime.

Which Courts Handle Which Cases?
Once you determine whether a case is civil or criminal, the next step is to determine which civil or criminal trial court will handle that case. There are different civil and criminal courts that specialize in certain kinds of cases. Major felony, misdemeanor, and juvenile courts are examples of specialized criminal courts. Major felony courts only handle serious crimes called felonies, such as robbery or murder. Misdemeanor courts only handle the least serious crimes called misdemeanors, such as shoplifting or trespass. Juvenile courts only handle cases involving children. Juvenile courts often hear cases involving crimes committed by children under age 18.

There are also a number of specialized civil courts. Small claims court, probate court, and family court are examples of courts that handle specific civil matters. In Indiana, the small claims court handles only cases where the dispute involves less than $6,000. Marion County, which includes the city of Indianapolis, is the only Indiana County that has separate courts in each of its nine townships that hear only small claims cases. In other counties, the circuit court hears small claims cases, or the superior courts have divisions within them that hear small claims cases.

Probate court handles cases that involve the administration of the estates of people who have passed away, guardianships, and mental health hearings. St. Joseph County, which includes the city of South Bend, is the only Indiana County that has a separate court that only hears probate cases. The probate court in St. Joseph County also has exclusive juvenile jurisdiction. In the other counties, the superior or county courts have divisions within them that hear probate and juvenile cases.

Family court is where some of the most difficult problems facing a family are usually heard. Family courts specialize in domestic matters such as divorce, child support, and visitation. In Indiana, there are no separate family courts, so the superior courts have divisions within them that handle family law cases.

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