Civil lawsuits are often protracted, drawn-out processes riddled with progressive phrases, legal jargon, and an infinite amount of prodding that seems foreign to all but those in the legal fraternity.
Understanding how the entire process works and the responsibility that comes with each phase can be daunting for anyone without a legal background. One of the most important stages of a lawsuit is the discovery process.
What does discovery mean in law, and why is it so important? Here’s everything you need to know.
What Is Discovery in Law
The trial process is designed to be fair to all parties involved in a lawsuit. One side presents a series of questions/accusations, and the other side gets the chance to come up with an appropriate rebuttal to each of them. This also means that there can be no surprises in court. Forget everything you’ve watched in courtroom dramas.
That’s where the discovery process in a lawsuit comes in. It refers to the formal exchange of information between both parties to a civil lawsuit based on the witnesses and evidence they intend to present at trial.
The whole idea behind any legal discovery process is to prevent either party from getting ambushed during the trial, aptly christened “trial by ambush.” This might occur when one of the parties only learns about the other side’s witnesses and evidence during the trial. As a result, they’re denied the time and opportunity to gather answering evidence.
Additionally, the legal discovery process allows the trial to proceed uninterrupted once each side receives all the information pertinent to the case beforehand. This avoids holding up the trial process, which would otherwise drag on for longer than necessary.
That being said, the discovery process does have its limits. Privileged information (including trade secrets, and attorney-client, doctor-patient, and husband-wife communications) and the work product of the opposing side are excluded from discovery.
Depending on the type of case being litigated, other types of protected information that cannot be included in the discovery process are certain psychiatric and other medical records, juvenile criminal records, among others.
If the information under discovery is stored in electronic formats, such as in a smartphone or computer, this process is known as electronic discovery or e-discovery for short.
Types of Discovery in a Civil Case
Below is an overview of some of the most common modes of discovery.
An interrogatory is a list of written questions that one party submits to the opposing side to be answered in written format under oath. Once the opposing side receives the interrogatory, they have a maximum of 30 days to provide answers. This period is subject to Rule 29 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure or can otherwise be adjusted by court order.
These are one of the most common modes of discovery. A deposition or “depo,” for short, is a statement submitted under oath, outside of a court of law, by one or more of the participants in a civil case. This can be made via video or written transcript and can be used in the preparation phase of a trial or during the trial itself. All parties to a suit have the right to be present during the deposition process.
A court deposition – which typically takes place in attorneys’ offices – has two principal purposes:
- To find out what a witness knows about a particular case; and
- To preserve witness testimony
By the time a case goes to trial, all parties are usually aware of the evidence that will be presented during the proceedings, the witnesses who will testify, and what they’ll say during their testimony.
Keep in mind that a deposition isn’t solely about obtaining favorable testimony. It’s about providing an opportunity for both parties to gain deeper insight into a case to identify the weak areas of their arguments and find ways to rebut them or avoid them entirely during the trial.
Requests for Admissions
A “request for admission” from one of the parties asks the opposing side to admit or deny a series of very specific, meticulously-worded questions to prove their liability. The allegations the opposing side is required to admit to or deny are typically stated in the original document (the petition or complaint) that was used to file the lawsuit.
While it may seem redundant, this method of discovery allows the opposing side to delve deeper into the issues that go beyond those required to state a cause of action. That way, depending on the answers provided, the court can draw reasonable inferences that may influence the outcome of a civil suit.
Requests for Production
This is undoubtedly one of the most popular modes of discovery and is particularly useful in the e discovery process. In a request for production, one party asks the opposing side to provide tangible evidence including documents or information that may be stored in electronic format.
Most of the physical evidence both parties use at trial is obtained using this process. It can become quite an expensive component of civil suits. Some responses to production requests are capable of filling entire warehouses.
A subpoena can be used to direct requests for production to non-parties.
Aside from the information gathering techniques detailed so far, other less formal methods might include collecting evidence from third parties to support the case, due diligence on the opposing side, taking photographs of the incident site, etc.
Get Expert Legal Help
The discovery process is a rigorous undertaking. At some point, everything will surface in the course of the proceedings. It’s only a matter of time.
Discovery can be a complicated and expensive process and warrants the professional expertise of an attorney. While it may be a time-consuming phase in the litigation process, it is arguably the most important as far as the outcome of a civil suit is concerned.
Ensure you retain an experienced and competent attorney to guide you through the entire process.
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