Court proceedings: What to expect
Many people will have little (if any) experience of a legal dispute which goes all of the way to a trial. Most disputes are concluded before the parties find themselves in the courtroom, particularly as it can take a lot of time and money to get there.
If you are involved in a professional negligence dispute, below is a brief overview of the different stages of court proceedings:
Before the court is involved the parties are expected to communicate with each other to set out their respective positions and try and resolve the matter. The claimant provides the defendant with all of the information about their negligence claim, and the defendant responds.
Issuing proceedings and Statements of Case
Formal proceedings begin when the claimant submits a claim to the court. This is also known as issuing proceedings. This begins a series of deadlines by which the claimant must set out their claim in full (‘Particulars of Claim’) and the defendant must admit the claim or submit a defence.
Settlement negotiations can happen at any time during the proceedings and the courts encourage parties to enter into them at the Pre-Action stage. They commonly occur once parties have set out their legal claims in full, as strengths, weaknesses, and the risks of continuing the dispute become more apparent. Failure to accept specific types of offer can lead to additional penalties further down the line.
Once each party has set out its legal position the court requires them to complete questionnaires asking how they think the proceedings will need to run. The court then holds a case Management Conference, at which it gives orders and a timetable known as ‘Directions’ setting out the various stages up to a trial.
At the disclosure stage, both parties provide each other with all of the documents which relate to the dispute. Both parties are obliged to provide all relevant documents, whether or not they help or damage their case.
Exchange of witness statements
Both parties simultaneously exchange the statements of each of their witnesses, who may also be required to give evidence at the trial.
If expert evidence is required on a specialist issue, either party may seek their input. It may be that a party includes an expert’s report as part of their statement of case. However, there is often a point during the proceedings at which both parties simultaneously exchange their expert evidence if they have not do so already.
The matter is tried before a judge at a hearing. The hearing may last for a few hours or even a few days depending upon the value and complexity of the case. Each party presents its arguments, witnesses give their evidence, and a judgment is given.
Although the case may have been decided, further issues concerning which legal costs are to be paid by which party (and whether they are paid in full or in part) may also need to be resolved. Often parties will settle or agree the costs payable by the losing party, but they can be assessed by the court in the absence of an agreement.