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The first step is determining in which court one should file their complaint (see "Filing a Complaint" below). Different courts handle different matters. Federal courts handle only specific cases, including those involving federal issues or disputes between parties from different states.

State courts handle most cases. State courts typically have a general civil division as well as specific divisions to handle family law, small claims, criminal issues, and probate (wills, trusts, and estates). Chances are that you will be bringing your claim in a state court of competent jurisdiction and you can get a lot of information from the clerk of your local court. They will usually be quite helpful in choosing how to proceed and you should be sure to begin your quest for information with the clerk because they can save you a lot of time.

Which court will handle a case depends on what type of claim is filed. Examples of claims that commonly occur include:

  • Debt Actions: Claims for money, which may be for repayment of a loan, payment for purchases, payment for work, unpaid rent, security deposits, etc.
  • Trespass Actions:¬†Claims for recovery for damages to one's property caused by another person's intentional or negligent actions, such as car accidents or damages to one's home or personal property
  • Replevin Actions: Claims for one's property that someone else has unlawfully
  • Landlord/Tenant Actions: Also called "summary possession" actions; a landlord may seek to recover property from a tenant because of rent owing or damage to the property, while a tenant may file an action if he/she feels they have been wrongfully kept out of the rental property
  • Domestic Relations Actions:Divorce, annulment, child custody, child support, visitation
  • Probate Actions:Will disputes, estate administration, undue influence
  • Labor and Employment ActionsDisci:plinary proceedings, wage disputes, affirmative action, race/gender/age discrimination, family and medical leave, employee privacy, occupational safety

The clerk of the court is the best resource for determining which court should be utilized and for learning about the specific requirements for filing a claim with a given court.

Filing a Complaint

The first thing the plaintiff (the person suing) must do is to file a COMPLAINT, the document that describes the reason for the suit, including alleged facts and the law on which the suit is based. The complaint involves allegations only, so proof is not required in this document.

When preparing a complaint, it is important to ensure all information is accurate and well-organized. Relevant names, times, locations, damage amounts, and other related information should be included, and specific documentation to back up each fact should be retained as evidence that the allegations in the complaint are true. Because the legal process can be a long and confusing one, it is advisable to keep all relevant documents together in one safe place for easy reference should any step in the process require production of a document.


Educating oneself is essential when representing oneself in a legal proceeding. Numerous books are available to assist non-lawyers with preparing for and proceeding through all stages of a lawsuit. Bookstores, libraries, and online retailers offer such resources. Most libraries include in their reference section materials that describe the court system and filing requirements, as well as contact information for local courts. The court clerk is a valuable source of information; do not hesitate to contact the clerk as needed, assisting the public with court-related issues is their job.
Also helpful are books geared toward new attorneys, which are often written in simpler terms, with less of the legal jargon that becomes second nature to a seasoned attorney. A small selection may be available at a public library; the best place to find such resources is at a law school library. Most law schools will permit the public to use their resources in the library during regular business hours upon request.

Emotional Preparation

Recognize that a lawsuit is an emotional thing. From the moment one begins preparation for a case, a good deal of time and effort are expended and, depending on the complexity of the claim and emotional investment in its subject, a lawsuit can wear a person out. Prepare loved ones for the possibility that your time and emotions will be occupied until the resolution of your case.

Remain mindful that frustration, arrogance, and anger will NOT help you prevail. Take a step back and view your case in terms of the "big picture" : why are you involved in the particular suit? What do you hope the resolution will be? How much time and money will you be required to invest? What is the likelihood of success? If you have any doubts among these issues, do additional research and reevaluate whether you are prepared to handle the case on your own. If it seems overwhelming, reconsider your decision to represent your self and think about consulting an attorney. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------

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