What Going to Court Really Looks Like

“I’ll see you in court!” We imagine that, if we said this, we would then march right into a scene from A Few Good Men and deliver a stirring speech, before we are vindicated. You can handle the truth; you will prevail. If they made movies about what really goes on in court, though, no one would ever go near a theater or a television again. If you are counting on the swift arm of justice to swoop in and set the matter right (“right” for you, that is), you might be disappointed.

That is not to say that justice is not done; it’s just done slowly, laboriously, and with only the faintest hint of glamour – if you consider paperwork to be sexy.  And sadly, sometimes justice is not done at all. Here is a brief look at what really goes on when you are “going to court.”

  • Demand Letter. In Ontario, a lawsuit typically begins with a demand letter or a series of such letters, written by a lawyer on behalf of his/her client. It’s a bit like singing the national anthem before a hockey game; we do it, but it has no effect on the score. These letters rarely work, and the process proceeds.
  • Statement of Claim. The plaintiff (complainant) files a Statement of Claim, a document in which one party presents a set of facts that justifies their right to sue. It is basically a complaint (which is what the document is called in US courts) that includes the alleged fault(s) and the damages that resulted and this is usually expressed as an amount of money it would take to set things right.
  • Serving the Defendant. The Statement of Claim is filed with the court, and it has to be served, or hand-delivered, to the defendant. The plaintiff must also file an Affidavit of Service with the court. This document proves that the defendant has actually received the claim.
  • Statement of Defence. Sorry, no stirring speech in front of the jury yet. Now the defendant has 20- 30 days to file a Statement of Defence, in which he/she denies the allegations. While lawyers take great care in drafting both of these pleadings (claim and defence) to ensure their clients are properly represented, they are frequently so one-sided as to be laughable.
  • Counter Claims, Cross-Claims, Replies, Legal Bills. This stage can go on for months and sometimes years as lawyers argue about what to do next. The defendant’s lawyers will often drag their heels in responding to even simple requests, hoping to wear down the plaintiff. Meanwhile, the meter’s running at $300-$500 per hour or more.

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