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How does the U.S. legal system work?

The American legal system is based on federal laws, which cover the entire country, and state laws, which only cover a particular state. Federal and state systems handle both civil and criminal cases.  Federal courts handle civil issues like bankruptcy, while state courts handle civil issues like evictions and divorce.

A civil case typically starts when one person, the plaintiff, claims that another person, the defendant, harmed the plaintiff by doing something against the law or by not doing something they were legally required to do.  Criminal cases begin when a person is accused of a crime, or “indicted.” Unlike in civil cases, the government brings criminal cases through the county prosecutor’s office.  The victim is not a party to the case.

There are many kinds of state courts, including municipal courts and common pleas courts, where cases usually start. Municipal courts hear less serious criminal cases and civil claims for less than $15,000. Common Pleas courts primarily hear felonies and civil cases worth more than $15,000.  If a party loses at trial, she can take her case to the Court of Appeals. The loser on appeal can ask the Ohio Supreme Court to hear the case.   All courts can only hear cases within their jurisdiction, which is generally the geographic area where the court is located (e.g. Cleveland Municipal Court hears cases that occur in Cleveland.)

The Clerk of Courts is the person who keeps the records for the court.  The Clerk receives documents for filing and collects court fees.  People who have to go to court and cannot afford to pay filing fees can often file a “poverty affidavit.”  A “poverty affidavit” is a sworn statement that you have a low income and cannot afford the fees. Once you file the affidavit and a judge approves it, your filing fees will be reduced or waived in that case.  See for more information. 

Some problems must be addressed through an administrative proceeding before going to court.  Benefits provided by the state, such as Unemployment Compensation, food stamps, and Medicaid, are part of the administrative law system. When an agency like the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services makes a negative decision about a person’s benefits, the person must be notified and given an opportunity to request a hearing by a certain deadline.  At the hearing, a person is allowed to bring an attorney or other representative to help explain why the agency’s decision was wrong.  After all available administrative proceedings have been used unsuccessfully, a person can take their issue to court.

This article was written by Legal Aid Summer Associate Jacob Whiten and appeared in The Alert: Volume 30, Issue 2. Click here to read a full PDF of this issue!

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