The term civil litigation is a specialised legal term used to differentiate between criminal and non-criminal. In short, any type of litigation that is not criminal litigation can loosely fall into the heading of civil litigation.
Within civil litigation, there is of course a plethora of other specialties, and civil disputes can be resolved by a number of means. These include:
Filing proceedings in the Disputes Tribunal.
This is a Tribunal operated under the Ministry of Justice, with limited jurisdiction to hear certain types of disputes up to $15,000, or with consent $20,000. In the Disputes Tribunal, lawyers are not allowed to attend, and there are very limited rights of appeal.
Mediation and arbitration
Often parties decide to use their own disputes resolution processes such as mediation or arbitration, and these have distinct benefits in resolving some disputes.
The District Court
The District Court has jurisdiction to hear almost all civil disputes where the amount in dispute is up to $200,000.
A District Court proceeding is commenced in the same way as the High Court by filing a Statement of Claim and Notice of Proceeding. After serving this document on a defendant, the defendant has 25 working days to file a defence.
If the Court decides that the dispute requires a full hearing, the parties are first required to attend what is called a judicial settlement conference at which a judge will supervise a type of mediation to see if the matter can be resolved without the need for a full trial.
If the matter cannot be resolved, the Court will allocate a full trial, and the normal Court process takes over.
Once a judgment is obtained, there are a large amount of options for enforcing a judgment:
• Referral to the High Court for bankruptcy
• Examination by a Registrar
• Distress warrants
• Attachment orders
In the District Court, a successful party will usually obtain a costs award. These costs awards will not cover all of the legal costs involved but will often provide for a significant proportion of your costs incurred in the litigation. Depending on how efficient your lawyer is, you may even find in some cases (particularly judgments by default) that your full costs may be recoverable.
The High Court
The High Court process is commenced by filing a Statement of Claim and Notice of Proceeding. After serving this document on a defendant, the defendant has 25 working days to file a defence.
The High Courts now operate very closely monitored case management programmes in which Associate Judges will implement strict timetables to push proceedings along towards trial.
Whilst there is no compulsory judicial settlement conference process, most Associate Judges will strongly encourage parties to attempt to resolve proceedings with the help of a judicial settlement conference.
Overall, the court process can be expensive and time-consuming. But the systems are much more efficient than they used to be, and the judges are much more proactive at pushing cases along. It is much more difficult for a defendant to hold proceedings up and delay the process because the judges are constantly ensuring that parties comply with timetables so that the matter can be allocated a hearing.
The key to running court proceedings is to be efficient and proactive. As a plaintiff’s lawyer primarily, I have learned that it is important to keep pushing the case along and to comply with timetables so that the defendant eventually has to face up to a judge either in a judicial settlement conference or at trial. More often than not, cases do resolve themselves before having to go to a full trial, because High Court trials are very expensive and of course unpredictable.