Litigation is a process of dispute resolution which is conducted principally in the judicial branches of the state and federal governments. Disputes can be categorized as criminal, civil and administrative. The category of a particular dispute is determined by the rights and remedies applicable to the dispute.

The three types of disputes can be summarized by what the defendant might lose. In a criminal case, he faces the possibility of losing his liberty; in a civil case, he may lose his money; finally, in an administrative case, he could lose his ability to do something important to him. They also can be distinguished by the tribunal which has the legal right to make the decisions which will bring the dispute to resolution. In criminal and civil cases, the tribunal is a court within the judicial branch of government; in an administrative case, the tribunal is an agency of the executive branch.

A somewhat more thorough definition of the three types of disputes may be helpful. A criminal dispute is one in which the defendant, meaning the person who is accused, can be penalized by incarceration in jail or prison, the imposition of monetary fines which are penal in nature as opposed to compensatory, commands to do or not do something, or a combination of the foregoing. A civil dispute is one in which the defendant can be required to pay monetary compensation as a result of violating another person’s rights, additional compensation to punish the defendant and make an example of him, commanded to do or not do something, or a combination of the foregoing. An administration dispute is one in which the defendant can be commanded to do or not do something, pay monetary fines in small amounts, or a combination of both.

Dog bite incidents may expose a defendant to all three types of disputes. He may be charged with a crime, sued for monetary damages, and required to euthanize his dog.

The litigation process is completed in several stages. The first is the pleading stage. The charges against the defendant must be stated in writing and filed with the tribunal. The second is the jurisdictional stage. The defendant must be notified of the charges in a legally sufficient manner, and commanded to proceed with his defense if any. The third is the discovery stage. The three types of disputes are treated differently in this stage. In a criminal case, the defendant is entitled to see the prosecutor’s entire case but the prosecutor is entitled to limited disclosure of the defendant’s. In a civil case, both parties are entitled to see each other’s entire cases. In an administrative case, there is limited or no disclosure. The fourth phase is trial. In criminal cases, there is always a jury; in civil, there usually is a jury; in administrative, there is no jury. All trials end in a judgment which resolves the dispute, usually in a final manner. The fifth phase is appeal. Criminal and civil judgments can be appealed; an administrative order can sometimes be appealed. The sixth stage is enforcement of the judgment or order. The parties can be compelled to behave pursuant to the judgment or order, failing which they can find themselves in a new criminal, civil or administrative dispute.

To learn details about the stages of litigation, see the topics Pleading, Discovery, and Trial, at the left.