This section provides general information about the court process for people who have to represent themselves in court. Here we discuss the basics of the legal system, how to start a court case, what to expect when you get to court, and what you can do if you are not satisfied with the outcome. If you need more information, you may be able to find state specific information on your state’s court website or through your area’s legal services organization.
Court System Basics
Overview of Civil vs. Criminal Law
The legal system is divided into two areas: civil law and criminal law. Separate courts govern (control) these two areas of the law.
One of the most confusing things about the legal system is the difference between civil cases and criminal cases. In domestic violence situations, there may be both civil and criminal cases occurring at the same time as a result of the same violent act. You may want to pursue both civil and criminal actions for maximum protection. The major differences have to do with who takes the case to court and the reason for the case.
In a civil domestic violence action, you are asking the court to protect you from the person abusing you. You are not asking the court to send that person to jail for committing a crime. However, if the abuser violates the civil court order, he may be sent to jail for the violation. In a civil case, you are the person bringing the case against the abuser and (in most circumstances), you have the right to withdraw (drop) the case if you want to. The restraining orders in every state that we refer to in the Know the Laws section are under the civil law system.
The criminal law system handles all cases that involve violations of criminal law such as harassment, assault, murder, theft, etc. A criminal complaint involves your abuser being charged with a crime. In a criminal case, the prosecutor (also called the district attorney) is the one who has control over whether the case against the abuser continues or not. It is the county/state who has brought the case against the abuser, not the victim. It is possible that if you do not want the case to continue (if you do not want to “press charges”), the prosecutor might decide to drop the criminal charges but this is not necessarily true. The prosecutor can also continue to prosecute the abuser against your wishes and could even issue a subpoena (a court order) to force you to testify at the trial.
Rules of Evidence
Evidence is information you can show the judge or tell the judge about. This can include both:
- physical evidence (like texts, photos, medical reports, etc.); and
- verbal evidence (like things you or another witness saw or heard and can testify about).
However, not all evidence is allowed in court. In state courts, which is where the types of cases in the Know the Laws – By State section would be filed, the state rules of evidence will determine what evidence can be used. In federal court, which is where immigration matters are heard, the Federal Rules of Evidence determine what evidence can be used. State rules of evidence are often very similar to the Federal Rules of Evidence, but each state may have different rules for their courts. Some states do not have formal rules of evidence, and instead rely on past court decisions (precedent). Below, you can find your state’s rules of evidence if your state has formal rules.
WomensLaw.org is not affiliated with the websites that are linked to below, and we cannot say for sure if the information contained on them is accurate. You may be able to find the most up-to-date rules of evidence at your local law library, which may be housed within a local public library or courthouse. In addition, many law schools open their library to the public, and you may want to call the nearest law school to see if this is an option.
We understand the rules can be very difficult to understand. WomensLaw will soon add a section explaining some common rules of evidence. Please check back soon for that page! WomensLaw will link to it here when it is complete.
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New Mexico compiles their rules, but does not allow direct linking. You can find New Mexico's Rules of Evidence by going to the New Mexico Compilation Commission website, expanding the table of contents (TOC) on the left side of the page, and selecting "Rules of Evidence" from the dropdown menu.
The Virgin Islands are "governed by the Rules of the Territorial Court and, to the extent not inconsistent therewith, by the Rules of the District Court, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure and the Federal Rules of Evidence.--Amended Sept. 13, 1975; Oct. 14, 1994, eff. Nov. 16, 1994." Please see the Superior Court of the Virgin Islands' website for more information.
Here you will find definitions for common legal terms. You can scroll through or use the quick navigation bar to choose the first letter of the word you are looking for.
abuse (domestic abuse, domestic violence, family abuse, family violence) -- Each state defines abuse or domestic violence differently. For the legal definition in your state as it applies to restraining orders, please select your state from our Restraining Orders page.
acquit -- When a judge or jury decides an accused person is "not guilty" of a crime.
adjudication -- The entry of a decree or an order by a court; the legal process of resolving a dispute.
alimony -- Money or other financial support awarded to a spouse in a divorce action for his or her separate support. lt is usually awarded only where one spouse has been dependent on the other or has less earning power than the other and for a temporary period of time. Also called spousal support or maintenance.
annulment -- A court declaration that a marriage is invalid or nonexistent. Courts annul marriages where fraud, bigamy, impotence, or another serious problem has occurred. It means that the marriage never occurred legally. Church annulments are not the same as legal annulments.
appeal -- The process of going to a higher court to review the decision of a lower court.
arraignment -- The initial court proceeding, in which the state formally charges the defendant with a crime, and in which the defendant usually pleads "guilty" or "not guilty."
arrest -- The initial step in the criminal justice process, in which the state deprives a suspect of his/her freedom due to alleged violations of criminal law.
assess -- To figure out the value of something; to make another pay an amount of money.
assignment -- To award a debt or benefits to another person. For example, a husband who does not pay child support can be forced to assign his wages to the court for his children.
asylum -- The granting of protection against return to a home country to a refugee; can lead to lawful permanent resident status and eventually to citizenship.
attorney -- Legal advocate who is licensed to practice law. Attorneys generally have to be "admitted" to a state's bar before they can practice (go to court) in that state. Attorneys and lawyers are the same; these terms are used interchangeably.
attorney general for the state (AG) -- Head of the state agency responsible for prosecuting violations of state laws. The AG's office is the state's "law firm" for civil matters. The AG's office represents the State, either defending the State, or bringing lawsuits on behalf of the State.
bench warrant -- A warrant that a judge issues for someone's arrest. A judge may issue a bench warrant in a number of circumstances, including when someone does not obey a court order or fails to come to a court hearing that s/he was ordered to come to.
book -- To enter into police records a suspect's name and the crime for which s/he was arrested.
brief -- A written legal argument, stating the legal reasons for the lawsuit based on statutes, regulations, case precedents, legal texts, and reasoning applied to facts in the particular situation. A brief is submitted to lay out the argument for various petitions and motions before the court, to counter the arguments of opposing lawyers, and to provide the judge with reasons to rule in favor of the party represented by the brief writer.
compensate -- To give one party money or other benefits to make up for a loss or problem.
competent -- Being "legally fit" to make decisions. The court may decide if a person is competent or incompetent. If someone is incompetent, the court may appoint a legal guardian to make decisions for that person.
consent -- Free and willing agreement. (e.g., A "consent order" is made when both parties agree to the terms of the order and then the judge signs off on it.)
consortium -- The services of a spouse. Services include household tasks one spouse performs for another and/or in addition to sexual services. (Term is used in law suits for "loss of consortium" where one spouse loses the services of the other and can sue for damages; available only in some states.)
contempt of court-- Committed by a person who intentionally disobeys a court order, acts in a way that does not respect the authority and dignity of the court, or fails to follow a court order.
continuance -- The postponing (rescheduling for later) of a court hearing. If you ask a judge for a continuance, s/he may or may not give it to you.
convey -- To give, sell, or transfer something to another person.
court -- Place where civil and criminal trials are held.
court officer -- An officer of the court who protects the judge and keeps order in the courtroom. In a criminal case, the officer is in charge of the accused person while he is in the courtroom; and looks after the jurors.
court reporter -- A legal stenographer who records what happens during official court proceedings.
criminal case -- A legal proceeding brought by the state, county, or city against someone, charging the person with a crime.
damages -- An award of money to the winning party in a lawsuit. Actual damages are out-of-pocket expenses such as lost wages or hospital bills. Actual damages in some cases may include an award for psychological harm. Punitive damages are an award to punish the wrongful party for willful improper action.
default judgment -- A judgment made against someone who did not defend himself/herself against a claim. For example, someone asking the court for a restraining order may get one by default judgment if the accused abuser does not come to court.
defraud -- To cheat or steal by false representation.
defendant -- Person with charges or a lawsuit against him or her. This term is used in both criminal and civil cases. (The defendant is also sometimes called the "respondent.")
defense attorney -- The lawyer who represents the defendant.
delinquent -- a minor under a certain age (depending on the state's laws) who commits a crime. Also known as a "juvenile delinquent."
district attorney -- The attorney(s) employed by the state to prosecute people for state criminal offenses. Also known as prosecutors, they represent the state. A city government may also have attorneys assigned to prosecute city charges. These people function like district attorneys on a local level.
domestic violence -- Each state defines domestic violence differently. For the legal definition in your state as it applies to restraining orders, please go to our Restraining Orders section and choose your state from the drop-dwon menu.
domicile -- The place where you live.
emancipation -- The process by which a minor child is declared to be an "adult" by a court of law. The child must petition the court for this right. The age at which you can file for emancipation is set by law in each state.
evidence -- Proof; witnesses' testimony; written statements or physical objects that someone presents at trial to make his or her case.
- testimonial evidence -- Statements that witnesses make under oath at a trial.
- demonstrative evidence -- Physical items that the parties introduce at trial, such as records, documents, exhibits, and objects such as guns or other weapons.
ex parte -- A Latin phrase meaning "on one side only." A judicial proceeding or order is said to be "ex parte" when it is taken or granted for the benefit of one party only, and without notice to any other person adversely affected. For example, you might have an "ex parte" hearing on your request for a restraining order during which a judge listens only to your side and then can grant you the order without the defendant (the abuser) present. The order will be temporary until the judge can hold a full court hearing with the defendant present to tell his/her side of the story.
examination -- The questioning of a witness by a lawyer at a trial or deposition. When the lawyer calls a witness for his/her case and questions the witness, the questioning is called direct examination. When the opposing lawyer questions the same witness, the questioning is called cross-examination.
false imprisonment -- The unlawful detainment of another person. This happens when one person deprives another of freedom of movement by holding that person in a confined space or by physical restraint. Examples include being locked in a car without opportunity to get out, being tied to a chair, or being locked in a closet.
felony -- A serious criminal offense such as murder, for which the sentence can include imprisonment for more than a year.
frivolous -- A pleading or claim is frivolous if no rational or reasonable arguments can be made to support the claim, and its purpose was to delay the court or embarass the opponent.
guardian ad litem -- The person assigned by the court to represent the interests of a minor child or incompetent person in legal proceedings - the term "ad litem" is a Latin phrase meaning "for the purpose of legal action." In some states, a guardian ad litem is appointed by the court to perform investigations or evaluations in custody cases, and to make reports to the court, sometimes with recommendations.
indictment -- A written accusation by a grand jury charging an individual with a crime, generally a felony.
injunction -- A court order prohibiting someone from doing some specified act or commanding someone to undo some wrong or injury.
liable -- Legally responsible.
jurisdiction -- Authority (power) of a court to listen to and decide cases. Each court has the authority to hear certain cases. State and federal laws determine which subjects courts may decide and whether the court's decision will be binding on someone who lives in another state.
jury -- A group of people who determine the guilt or non-guilt of the defendant or, in a civil case, who decide which party wins the lawsuit. The lawyers screen the jury to make sure the people on it are neutral (impartial).
misdemeanor -- Considered to be a "lesser offense" than a felony and that can lead to imprisonment for up to one year.
paternity -- Fatherhood. Paternity can be established through a legal acknowledgment by the parents or though a court hearing, DNA test, etc. The exact method for establishing paternity may vary by state.
perjury -- When someone purposefully give "materially" false or misleading testimony while under oath. Testimony is generally "material" if it relates to important or deciding facts in the case or proceeding. (Note: This is a general definition of perjury. Since perjury can be a crime, the actual definitions and the criminal penalties can vary from state to state.)
persecution -- (In asylum proceedings) The infliction of serious suffering or harm, caused by government action or inaction, upon people who differ in a way regarded as offensive (race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion) in a manner condemned by civilized governments.
petition -- A request to a court. (Also sometimes called an "application.")
petitioner -- Someone who presents a petition to a court or other official body. In many civil cases (such as protection order proceedings), the party who files the petition is referred to as the petitioner.
plaintiff -- The party who brings a civil suit in a court of law.
plea -- The defendant's response to a criminal charge, generally "guilty," "not guilty," or "no contest."
plea-bargaining -- The process through which the prosecutor and the defense attorney try to reach an agreement where the defendant pleads guilty in exchange for a lesser sentence/ punishment.
probable cause -- A reasonable ground for belief in certain alleged facts; having more evidence for something than against it. For example, probable cause must exist for a law enforcement officer to make an arrest without a warrant, search without a warrant, or seize property in the belief the items were evidence of a crime.
prosecute -- To carry out a judicial proceeding; to proceed against a person criminally. A district attorney prosecutes cases against persons alleged to have committed violations of state criminal law; this is why the district attorney can also be known as a "prosecutor."
prosecutor -- An attorney who represents the state on behalf of the victim of a crime. He or she tries to present evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime as charged. A prosecutor will be assigned for criminal cases but not civil ones.
protection order, order of protection -- A court order for someone to behave in a certain way (such as staying away from a victim and his/her home) and to stop violations of laws or court orders; may be called different names in different states, such as restraining order, injunction, etc.
public defender -- An attorney appointed by the court for the legal defense of someone charged with a crime who is unable to afford or obtain legal assistance. The public defender is paid by the state, not by the person being represented (the client).
punitive damages -- See "damages."
quash -- To annul, make void or suppress. The recipient of a subpoena or the party against whom the subpoena is filed can file a "motion to quash" in court to ask the judge to dismiss the subpoena so that the subpoenaed party does not have to comply.
respondent -- The party against whom a petition or motion is filed. In many civil cases (such as protection order proceedings), the party against whom the case is brought is referred to as the respondent.
refugee -- A person outside his or her own country who is unable or unwilling to use the protection of that country because of persecution, or a well founded fear of persecution, on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.
regulations -- Operating procedures (rules) of government agencies.
restraining order -- See "protection order, order of protection."
service of process -- In the context of a restraining order, the actual delivery of court paperwork that informs a person of an upcoming hearing and any temporary restraining orders against him/her. When someone receives this paperwork, s/he has been served.
settlement -- A written compromise reached by the parties in a civil case and approved by a judge.
stalking -- Each state defines stalking differently. Please see our State Statutes page for your state and look for the definition of stalking in the criminal code or penal code section.
statutes -- Laws passed by state or federal legislators. You can research them in law libraries or on the internet. The constitution is supreme over all statutes, and statutes have more authority than regulations.
subpoena -- An order of the court that commands a witness to appear at a certain time and place to give testimony about a specific matter (subpoena ad testificandum) or commands a person/organization to provide specific documents (subpoena duces tecum). Any person who fails to comply with the subpoena may be held in contempt of court.
suspend -- To stop temporarily or to postpone on certain conditions.
trial -- The process through which all parties to a civil or criminal case have the opportunity to prove their sides of the case through evidence, testimony, etc.
verdict -- The decision made by the jury in a trial as to the guilt or non-guilt of the defendant.
violation -- The term violation can be used to refer to a type of low-level criminal offense (less serious than a misdemeanor). However, generally, a violation can also be when someone disobeys a court order -- for example, a person can be charged with violation of a protection order, which can be a misdemeanor crime or a felony crime.
voir dire -- The process through which parties to a court case question and select jurors for a trial. This may be done differently in criminal cases than in civil cases.
waive -- To give up certain rights or responsibilities. (Examples: To "waive" your right to an attorney means you are giving up that right. You can also ask the court to "waive" any fees if you can't pay them. The court then gives up its right to collect fees from you.)
This page has information on what it means for a court to have "personal jurisdiction" over someone, especially over someone who lives in another state. There are many reasons why you might be living in a different state than a person who is abusing or harassing you. You may have fled to escape abuse or perhaps you moved to a new state for another reason. The fact that the abuser lives in a different state might create a problem when you try to get a restraining order against him/her or if you are trying to get other remedies from the court.
Basic info and definitions
What is personal jurisdiction? Why is it important?
Personal jurisdiction means the judge has the power or authority to make decisions that affect a person. For a judge to be able to make decisions in a court case, the court must have “personal jurisdiction” over all of the parties to that court case. The judge might dismiss your case if the court does not have personal jurisdiction over the other party.
How does the court get personal jurisdiction over the parties in a lawsuit?
Generally, in civil cases, the person who is filing the court case (the plaintiff or petitioner) is giving the court jurisdiction over him/herself by just filing. When you file a court case in which you are asking for a relief from a court, you are telling the court that there is an issue you need the judge to address and that you will be bound by whatever decision s/he reaches. That means that you are agreeing that the court has the power or authority to make a decision that affects you (personal jurisdiction).
It is a little more complicated when discussing the person you are filing a lawsuit against (the defendant or respondent.) Our biggest law (the U.S. Constitution) wants to make sure that a defendant in a case has an opportunity to defend him/herself if a lawsuit is filed against him/her. To make sure s/he can defend him/herself, the plaintiff or the court system needs to notify the defendant of the lawsuit or complaint against him/her. Each state has its own laws in terms of what needs to be done in order to legally notify someone of the action against him/her and if that is to be done by the plaintiff or by the court. If the defendant resides in the state where the court case is filed, once the defendant has been legally notified, the court gets personal jurisdiction over that party and can now start the legal process. It is more complicated if the defendant lives in a different state than where the lawsuit was filed.
Note: In most states, if you file a court case against someone who lives out of state and that party comes to court (makes an appearance), s/he must raise the lack of personal jurisdiction as a defense before or during the first court appearance. If all parties appear and no one tells the judge that the court does not have personal jurisdiction over the out-of-state defendant, then the judge will likely let the case continue.
Personal jurisdiction over an out-of-state defendant
If the abuser lives out of state, when will the court have personal jurisdiction over the abuser?
For the majority of court cases, most states have what is known as a “long-arm statute,” which is a law that explains when a court can have personal jurisdiction over individuals who do not reside in that state. The long-arm statute lays out certain conditions, or “minimum contacts,” that must be met for the court to get personal jurisdiction over the defendant. Although this may vary from state to state, in general, the most common ways to get personal jurisdiction over the defendant are when:
- the cause of action occurred in the state where the case is being filed;
- the defendant was personally served with the court papers in the state; or
- the defendant has a substantial connection with the state (often called “minimum contacts”).
Note: There is one important exception to the information explained in this section. In cases involving custody of minor children, it does not necessarily matter if the other parent lives out of state. The court generally looks at where the children live – and that state’s court usually has jurisdiction over the children and their parents. There is a law called the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA) that deals with this issue and applies in all states (except in Massachusetts where a similar law applies and Puerto Rico where no similar law has been adopted). The UCCJEA is a uniform law (statute) adopted by individual states that helps to set the “home state” that has jurisdiction over the children, and therefore, the parties. For more information on filing for custody in your state, you can go to our Custody page for the state where you will be filing.
If the cause of the legal action occurred in the state, would a court in that state have personal jurisdiction?
The “cause of action” basically means the reason that you are suing someone. If the cause of action happened in the state where you are trying to get personal jurisdiction over the other party, this is one way for the court to get personal jurisdiction. For example, let’s say you live in Virginia and your partner lives in Florida. If your partner assaulted you in Virginia while visiting you, then Virginia would have jurisdiction over you and your out of state partner to hear a court case related to that assault.
Does the court have personal jurisdiction if the other party was served court papers in the state?
After you file a court case, the other party has to be served with a copy of the papers that you filed and be notified of the upcoming court date. If you can have the defendant personally served with the court papers in the state where you filed the case, this will generally give the court personal jurisdiction to hear your court case. “Personal service” means someone other than you or another party in the court case hands the notice and the petition/complaint or other necessary documents directly to the person you are trying to sue. For example, if you know that the other party is coming to your state to visit family, attend a concert, or go to a business meeting, you can arrange to have him/her personally served with the court papers while s/he is in the state.
Note: In some states, service must be done by a sheriff or another certified person known as a process server. You may want to speak with a lawyer in your state to see if there are any special service rules that might apply in your situation.
How can I prove that the defendant has a substantial connection (“sufficient minimum contacts”) with the state where I file my case?
Generally, a court can get personal jurisdiction over a party if that party has a substantial connection (“sufficient minimum contacts”) with that state. In most cases, these contacts can be related or unrelated to the court case you are trying to bring. For example, if the defendant owns a home (“real property”) in the state or conducts substantial business in the state, then the court may be able to have personal jurisdiction over him/her. Proving sufficient minimum contacts can be a complicated issue and if you are trying to get jurisdiction over another party based on these contacts, you should consult with a Lawyer familiar with the laws of your state.