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Legal Information

Court System Basics

How do I know what court has the power (subject matter jurisdiction) to hear my case?

Subject matter jurisdiction is the authority or power that each court has over certain types of legal disagreements (disputes). For a court to hear a particular case, it must have subject matter jurisdiction over the issue or issues that you are asking the court to decide on. Some courts, called courts of general jurisdiction, will have subject matter jurisdiction over many different kinds of cases. Any issues that come up in court that are outside of that court’s subject matter jurisdiction have to be disregarded or dismissed because the court has no legal power to decide over them. For example, if someone dies and s/he has a will, typically every county will have a special court, sometimes called surrogate’s or probate court, that can make decisions on whether the will is valid and how the property listed in the will should be distributed. If you try to bring a case about a will into family court, the family court usually does not have subject matter jurisdiction to make decisions about a will and may not be able to make a ruling on your case. You might have to file multiple petitions in different courts to get the outcome you are looking for. For example, if you want child custody, child support, and a protection order, in some states, you might have to file three different petitions in two or three different courts.

When deciding in which court to file, it is important to know what your goals are, what you are trying to accomplish by filing a petition/complaint, and which court is able to provide you with the relief that you are looking for. To find out which specific court you have to go to in your state, you could ask a lawyer or court clerk in your area. Make sure to let the court clerk know what goal you are trying to accomplish so that s/he can give you the appropriate forms/petitions. We have a list of courthouses that have power to decide on protection orders in each state on our Courthouse Locations page.

What possible outcomes might happen in my case?

The outcome that you might expect in your case will depend on a number of factors. First, the court where you filed your case affects the possible outcomes. Different courts have different jurisdiction and may be limited in the kind of relief the court can order or award. So not every court can issue each of the types of relief explained below. Generally, some courts can only award money damages, some courts can only order people to do or not to do certain things (“equitable relief”), and some courts can award both.

Second, the relief that you can get in your case will also depend on what you have asked for in your petition or complaint. Generally, a court can only award relief that is asked for in the petition. For example, in restraining order case, unless you specifically ask for temporary custody in your petition, the court may not be able to grant that outcome. It may be possible for you to amend your petition, but there are rules that may not allow you to amend the petition in certain circumstances. It is important to include the relief that you want in your complaint or petition so that you are not prevented from getting that outcome at the end of your case.

Court cases often involve requests for many types of outcomes, known as “relief.” Generally, you are not limited to one type of relief in your court case. A judge may award several different types depending on the case. The types of relief that a judge might award include:

  • Compensatory
    • Compensatory damages compensate, or pay you back for any monetary loss you suffered because of the legal wrong that was committed against you. For example, if someone attacks you, you could ask for the cost of the medical bills you had to pay because of the attack, the income that you lost for missing work, and the pain and suffering you experienced. Similarly, if someone breaks a contract, like a lease, the judge can award a money judgment for the amount owed in the contract.
  • Punitive
    • Punitive damages punish the defendant for the wrong s/he committed. They also can serve as a public example to discourage others from committing similar wrongs. Generally, when you see large amounts of money awarded as damages in a lawsuit, some of it is compensatory damages but a large portion will also be punitive damages.
  • Statutory
    • The laws of your state will have certain provisions for relief that a judge can award in certain types of court cases. For example, a divorce case is generally covered by statutes that tell a judge what kind of power s/he has in the case. Judges in a divorce can order the parties to split marital property, maintain life insurance policies, pay support, arrange for custody and visitation, among other things, because these outcomes are allowed by the laws of the state.
  • Equitable
    • Equitable relief is when a judge makes an order that requires a party to act or restricts a party from acting when legal remedies are not enough to right the wrong that the other party committed. Typically, this involves something other than a judgment for money damages. The most common example is when a judge orders a person or entity to do or not to do something, which might be called an injunction.
  • Restitution
    • Restitution is similar to compensatory damages but it usually happens only in criminal cases. For example, if a court finds a defendant guilty of criminal mischief for damaging your cell phone, the judge can order that the defendant pay you restitution for the value of the cell phone. The difference between a civil money judgment and a criminal restitution order is that the court itself will usually oversee restitution. If the defendant is sentenced to probation, then the probation officer might also oversee repayment of restitution. If the defendant does not pay restitution in a certain timeframe, then the judge can bring the defendant back into court for resentencing. You can see how this differs from a the possible penalties for not paying a civil money judgment on our page about Collecting Judgments.
  • Costs and fees
    • As part of a court case, the judge might award the costs and fees of bringing the court case to the party that wins. This means that the judge may award a judgment for the cost of filing the court action, the cost of serving the papers, and sometimes even the attorney’s fees. Usually a judge will only award costs and attorney’s fees in extreme cases where one of the parties is being especially difficult and the litigation could have been avoided, or in cases where the statute or a contract between the parties specifically states that costs and fees are awarded (like in some leases).