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Self-Help civil Overview

Disclaimer: This website doesn’t give you legal advice. This is only general information. Talk to a lawyer for help. (See the Bar Association of Silicon Valley  for low-cost initial consultation appointments.)

If you would like to search the Court's case index for information about a particular Civil case, or look up a hearing date, click here to visit our Case Information Portal .

The Civil Self-Help section of the website tells you about:

  1. Introduction to Civil Court
  2. What are Civil Court cases?
  3. Do I need a lawyer?
  4. What is a Guardian ad litem?
  5. How can I solve this without going to court?
  1. Introduction to Civil Court:

    "Civil" cases are the cases in court that aren’t about breaking a criminal law (called a violation of criminal law).

    There are a lot of different kinds of cases in Civil Court. We have separate sections for the main kinds of civil cases:

    • General Civil Cases: Cases about contracts, damage to property or someone getting hurt. See the Self-Help Civil Self-Help Lawsuits & Filing section of this website

    • Family Cases: Divorce (called dissolution of marriage), legal separation, annulment (nullity of a marriage or domestic partnership), child and spousal support, and child custody cases. See the Self-Help Family section of this website.

    • Juvenile Cases: Cases about child abuse and neglect (called juvenile dependency). Or, when someone under 18 breaks the law (called juvenile justice). See the Self-Help Juvenile section of this website.

    • Landlord/Tenant Cases: Cases about renting or leasing a place (called real property). We give you information about "Unlawful Detainer" cases — this means whether or not the tenant can stay on the property. See the Self-Help Landlord/Tenant (Unlawful Detainer - UD) section of this website

    • Small Claims Cases: Civil cases that are worth $10,000 or less if you are filing as an individual. If a business is filing, the claim must be $5,000 or less. You can’t have a lawyer. The people in the case (called the parties) represent themselves. See the Self-Help Small Claims section of this website.

    • Probate Cases: Cases about taking care of people and their personal affairs. See the Self-Help Probate section of this website.

      Some examples of probate cases:

  2. What Are Civil Court actions or cases?
    • Civil Court actions:

      You file your case, or "action" in Civil Court if you think you’ve been hurt, financially or physically. When you are hurt physically or financially, it’s usually called a "tort". The Civil Court deals with things like car accidents, and contract disputes.

      There are other kinds of cases in Civil Court, too. Civil Court cases are divided into sections, depending on how much they’re worth. If your case is worth:

      • $5,000 or less (if you are filing as a business), you can file your lawsuit in Small Claims Court. (Self-Help Small Claims section of this website.)

      • $10,000 or less (if you are filing as an individual) you can file your lawsuit in Small Claims Court. (Self-Help Small Claims section of this website.)

      • $25,000 or less, you can file it in a court called a “Limited Jurisdiction Superior Court”.

      • More than $25,000, you can file in a court called an “Unlimited Jurisdiction Superior Court”.

    • How Civil Court works:

      If you file a Limited or Unlimited Jurisdiction case in Superior Court, there are 6 steps:  


    Prefiling starts when you get hurt. (See "Things to Think About Before You Sue.") There are a lot of things to do to get ready before you file a lawsuit.


    Filing starts when you fill out your papers to start a Court action. After you file your papers, you have to wait for the other person to default or answer.


    Discovery starts 30 days after the other person answers. This is when you and the other person exchange information and learn about the strengths and weaknesses of your case.


    If you can’t settle your case, pretrial starts about 90 days before your trial. This is when you get ready for the trial. This is when you make decisions, like if you need an expert witness, and have settlement conferences with the judge.


    Your trial can last one day or many months. It depends on how complicated the case is.


    This means after the trial. This is when you can appeal or collect your judgment.

    Remember: If you don’t have a lawyer, you’ll have to act as your lawyer. You have to know the laws and court procedures. If you don’t, you can get in trouble. You can lose your rights.

    The court won’t make you hire a lawyer. But if you don’t, you have to deal with every part of your case by yourself. The judge or the other person’s lawyer can’t help you.

    You can find the court’s rules, laws, and procedures in:  

    Read these resources before you start. You can get them at your local law library  and online at the links above.

  3. Do I need a lawyer?

    Generally, yes. There are a lot of good reasons to have a lawyer:

    • Lawyers know the law. They know the ins and outs of the little things that can confuse you if you are not used to them.
    • Lawyers know what to do when the other side doesn't "play fair". They know when that happens (it's not always clear).

    • Lawyers know about the judges, and how they like to run their courtrooms. They know if you should ask for a jury trial, or a Court trial.

    • Lawyers know juries – what juries are like, if you’ll be a "likeable" plaintiff (this is very hard to figure out), and what a jury will likely do in your case.

    • A lot of lawyers have gone through this hundreds, sometimes thousands, of times. It's the lawyer’s job. Some do it 12 hours a day. It takes a lot of time and money to file a lawsuit. Even for a lawyer, it can be hard emotionally.

    But, there are some reasons you may decide not to hire a lawyer:

    • You won’t win just because you have a lawyer.  
    • Lawyers can be very expensive.   

  4. What is a Guardian ad litem?

    If you are under 18, you sometimes need something called a “Guardian ad litem”. This is usually a parent or legal guardian. "Guardian ad litem" means "guardian for the lawsuit". To get one you just have to fill out a Court form.

    Incapacitated people and someone who is conserved (has a conservator) also needs a Guardian ad litem.
  5. How can I solve this without going to Court?

    Contact the other party. Or contact their lawyer. Ask them to negotiate so you can settle the case without going to trial. If that doesn’t work, try a mediation program in your community. Here are some of the programs that can help you settle:  

    See the Self-Help Civil Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) Resource page on this website. Or, look in the phone book under "Mediator". The court also has a list of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) mediators. Go to the ADR section of the Civil Division of this website.

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