Procedural law is the collection of rules that govern how courts do their business. All levels and types of courts use procedural law. It controls how courts hear cases. It also dictates what a party must do in order to bring their case before the court.
Where does procedural law come from?
Each court has their own procedures. For example, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure apply to federal courts. States have their own rules of civil procedure. There are also separate rules that apply to different types of courts. For example, bringing a case to a supreme court is often very different than bringing a case in a district court or a small claims court.
There are procedural requirements for every type of legal proceeding. If you’re subject to an administrative action like a decision on unemployment benefits or a decision to terminate your store’s participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, you have a limited amount of time to bring an appeal. Lawyers must even know and follow procedure when they’re subject to disciplinary actions from their state bar association.
Why do courts use procedural law?
Procedures help courts decide cases in a fair and uniform manner. Procedural law makes sure that one party can’t unfairly surprise the other during litigation. It means making sure everyone has fair notice of court dates. It means preventing a party from using delay or harassment tactics. Every court relies on procedural law to conduct business in a fair and predictable way.
Perhaps the largest body of procedural law is the civil procedure that applies to a state or federal court. Civil procedures control everything from how to initiate a case to how to appeal it. Here are some of the most common aspects of civil procedure:
- Initiating a case – A civil case starts when a party drafts a complaint. They must allege all of the claims that they want to bring. They must know what each claim should contain in order to correctly prepare documents. A case begins by filing the case in the appropriate court. The person bringing the case must officially serve the other side with a copy of the paperwork.
- Responding to a complaint – When a person receives notice that they’re being sued, they have a limited amount of time to reply to the complaint. If they don’t reply, they might lose their right to participate in the proceedings. A reply to a complaint must admit the other side’s allegations, deny them, state that there’s no response required or state that they don’t have enough information to be able to reply.
- Discovery – Discovery allows both sides of a lawsuit to learn about the case and build their evidence. The purpose of discovery in procedural law is to narrow the issues in the case. When both sides know the evidence in the case, they’re more likely to be able to reach a non-trial resolution. Discovery allows the parties to learn about the case before trial. In some cases, the discovery process helps the parties resolve the case without needing a trial.
- Motion practice – The parties might ask the court to make certain decisions before trial. They might ask the court to exclude pieces of evidence by making a preliminary motion. A motion for summary disposition asks the court to decide the case based on the law when there aren’t material issues in dispute. A motion for summary disposition might result in dismissal of the case or result in a judgment without a trial.
Both the state’s attorney and the accused must follow criminal procedure. Criminal procedure begins when a person gets arrested. There’s a limited period of time that the police can hold someone in jail without taking them before a judge or magistrate. The state can’t hold someone indefinitely without charges.
Criminal procedures vary based on the jurisdiction that’s hearing the case. They also vary based on the type of crime or violation. A state might use six jurors to hear a misdemeanor case and twelve jurors to hear a felony case. They might not use a jury at all for a civil violation like a traffic ticket.
Most states have procedural rules designed to help crime victims. A crime victim generally has the right to notice of the proceedings in the case. They have a right to restitution for their financial losses. They also have the right to address the court at sentencing.
Rules of Evidence
In addition to rules of civil and criminal procedure, courts use rules of evidence to control how they receive evidence during official proceedings. Rules of evidence dictate when a statement, document, video or physical object can be used as evidence at trial. When a party can use a piece of evidence, the rules control what the person must do in order to admit the evidence at the hearing.
A lot of procedural law comes from the due process requirements of the U.S. Constitution. The fourteenth and fifteenth amendments of the U.S. Constitution say that a court can’t take someone’s life, freedom or property without due process. A person has a right to notice of a hearing against them and an opportunity to be heard by the court.
People that appear in court have the right to an unbiased court. They may choose to have an attorney represent them. Courts must make records of their proceedings. They must state the reasons for the decisions that they make.
Who practices procedural law?
Anyone who sees a courtroom during their legal career practices procedural law. In fact, procedural law impacts almost all attorneys whether or not they appear in court. Even attorneys who do things like prepare wills or advise corporations must keep procedural law in mind so that they can provide competent representation to their clients.
There are some attorneys who use procedural law more than others. Attorneys who frequently litigate must know the details of procedural law in order to bring their case. Criminal lawyers must follow criminal procedure whether they’re prosecuting the case or defending a client. Civil lawyers must follow procedure at all stages of their case.
Even if you have a great case, you can lose if you don’t use and follow procedure effectively. Missing a deadline or failing to file the right paperwork can be fatal to a great case. Lawyers who know procedural law can use it to their advantage. Lawyers who don’t know procedural law can find themselves at a disadvantage. It’s critical that every lawyer learn the civil procedure that that applies to their area of practice so that they can advocate effectively for their clients.
Both public and private attorneys use procedure. Even if you’re bringing enforcement actions on behalf of an executive agency, you must still follow the procedural rules that apply to the court. Attorneys that work in the judiciary branch also use procedure. They must know and apply the rules of procedure when they decide cases. If a litigant doesn’t follow the appropriate procedure, the court must take corrective action based on what the rules call for.
Why Become a Procedural Lawyer?
If you’re great at memorizing rules and exceptions to the rules, procedural law is for you. In addition to procedural law being a necessity for almost all attorneys, if you’re great at knowing and using court procedures, it can help you be a great litigator. Lawyers who are great at procedure are in high demand and respected by their colleagues. If you have aspirations to be a judge or work in any capacity in an adjudicative capacity, procedural law is something you need to master. Practicing procedural law can help you advance your legal career and explore every available avenue to help your clients reach their goals.
Using rules to pursue the law
The courts rely on procedural law in order to enforce substantive law. Lawyers use procedural law in order to bring their cases and advocate for their clients. While all lawyers use procedural law, litigators use it the most. Clients rely on their attorney’s knowledge of procedure in order to effectively pursue their interests and receive justice from the courts.