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A court's power to apply the law to the facts of a case is commonly referred to as jurisdiction. Civil cases typically involve non-criminal disputes between parties. Civil jurisdiction involves the authority a particular court may have to hear the facts of a civil matter, apply the law, and render judgment. Courts may have different types of jurisdiction depending on the nature of the dispute, geographic area, property ownership, and where the injury was sustained.
To commence a civil lawsuit, a person, or plaintiff, typically files a written complaint in the court of the area in which they live or where the injury occurred. If the defendant, or the person who the lawsuit is filed against, also lives in this area, the court typically has civil jurisdiction over the matter. The defendant will need to be "served," or delivered, a written document called a complaint, which outlines the basis of the plaintiff's dispute against him. Once one party serves another, the case is filed with the court that has civil jurisdiction over the matter.
Courts may have several different types of jurisdiction at one time. General jurisdiction may give a court the authority to hear civil cases, contract disputes, and civil rights violations based upon the subject matter, or subject matter jurisdiction. Some courts may have specialized jurisdiction to only hear certain matters. A federal bankruptcy court, which deals only with bankruptcy matters in the United States, is one example. In some areas, if the monetary value of the dispute is less than a specific amount, a court of general jurisdiction may defer jurisdiction to another court, such as a small claims court.
If the defendant does not live in the same area, the court typically must establish personal jurisdiction over him in order to have the power to hear the case. Some areas have what is called a "long arm statute," which will allow a court to obtain personal jurisdiction over the defendant even if he lives in another area. This may apply if he does business, owns property, or is alleged to have committed a civil wrong or "tort" against another person who lives in the area where the suit is filed. Long arm statutes may also apply if a defendant committed a tort elsewhere, but it caused some sort of injury in the area in which the lawsuit commenced.
In addition to civil jurisdiction, courts may also have concurrent jurisdiction. This type of jurisdiction may be shared by courts in more than one area that have exposure to the subject matter of the case. Concurrent jurisdiction might also be known as overlapping jurisdiction. In the case of concurrent jurisdiction, one court might elect to send the location, or venue, of the case to the other court if one of the parties asks it to do so.
Here's another wrinkle when it comes to jurisdiction -- does the federal local circuit court have jurisdiction? There are ways to sort that out, of course, as statutes generally sort that out. Regardless, there are times when both courts could make a case for having jurisdiction and a conflicts of law issue arises.
Still, appearances in federal court are rare. State laws will usually cover the remedies sought by the party filing suit whereas federal jurisdiction tends to rest with more uncommon issues such as violations of employment laws.