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I want to learn about civil litigation in Texas.

Court How-Tos (Civil Procedure)

This guide explains the basics of civil lawsuits in Texas.
Overview

Guide Overview

Start by reading Civil Litigation: The Basics. Civil litigation is broken into three main phases:

  1. Pre-trial
  2. Trial
  3. Post-trial.

Each phase has certain tasks that must be completed to protect the rights of everyone involved in the lawsuit. 

Research Tips

Read Legal Research: Steps to Follow.

If you feel overwhelmed by the civil litigation process, see TexasLawHelp’s Ask a Question page, and we will do our best to help you find the right kind of assistance for your situation. Try the Legal Help Directory tool or contact a lawyer referral service.

You can visit your local law library and review the following resources:

There are also books of legal forms called litigation guides and practice manuals.

Common questions about Court How-Tos (Civil Procedure)

Uncontested means that both sides agree on the desired outcome and are using the court system to make their agreement legally binding. These people may be required to have their agreement approved by a judge, or they may decide to do so as a way to help protect their interests. Uncontested cases can be completed through careful research, attention to detail, and organization.

Contested means that the people involved in the case do not agree on what the outcome of the case should be.

Contested cases require that both sides argue their position to explain why the law says a judge should rule in their favor. Contested cases will generally require much more work than an uncontested case—even if the other side is not represented by an attorney. This is because you will need to learn trial strategy and prepare to clearly explain the way that the law applies to the facts of your case. And you will need to give this explanation while addressing the other side, who will be presenting an explanation of the law that challenges your explanation, arguing that it is only fair for the judge to rule in their favor instead of yours. 

Discovery is how you get information that is relevant to your case that the other side has. 

Read Discovery in Texas.

Sometimes, parties need to ask the court for something before or during the trial. To ask the court for something during litigation, you will usually need to file either a motion or request. Motions can be made during the course of a lawsuit, either before or after a trial. You typically file motions in writing, but you can make some motions in court, orally.

Some motions and requests that people representing themselves might file include:

A trial is a process where a judge or jury listens to and makes a decision about a case. Both sides will try to convince the judge or jury to agree with them by presenting their side of the story and any evidence. The purpose of a trial is to find a solution or get a decision, like awarding money in a civil case. Trials can be complicated and have special rules, so it is usually a good idea to have a lawyer help you. Read Civil Trial Preparation to learn about getting ready for a trial.

Instructions & Forms

The pre-trial phase of litigation can be explained in steps. These steps are time-consuming, but also essential to a successful case.  

Checklist Steps

Preparing a legal claim includes learning whether or not you have a viable claim that can be heard by a judge, what laws apply to the facts of your case, what facts are relevant to your claim, and what type of remedy you can ask for in court. For specific steps, you should follow to prepare a legal claim, see TexasLawHelp's Legal Research Guide.

As part of your research, investigate Alternative Dispute Resolution Even experienced attorneys regularly settle their cases outside of court using ADR. This might be the best option for you too. It could save you time, money, and even unnecessary damage to your personal relationships.

Use your research to tell you what specific information you are required to include in your petition. A petition is a document you write that asks the court to give you a certain outcome.

To file, take three copies of your petition to the clerk of the court. The clerk will stamp them to show that you are officially asking the court for the things listed in your petition. Which courts do which things is explained in this chart.

When you give your petition to the clerk, you should be ready to pay a filing fee. Filing fees are often $200 or more. If you cannot afford to pay the filing fee, you may file a statement of inability to afford to ask the court to waive the fee for you. This form may also be called a Pauper’s Oath or Statement of Inability to Afford Payment of Court Costs. Read Court Fees and Court Costs.

Keep in mind: The court will not contact you with a court date or decision. Instead, you must complete the next steps until you have a court order signed by a judge.

After you file your petition with the court, you are required to tell the person, people or business that could be affected by your case that you have filed. This is called giving legal notice. Your research in Step 1 should tell you who the law requires you to notify in your specific type of case. If you are unsure of who needs to be notified, you should research the notice requirements of your type of case more specifically.

The person who files the Petition is called the Petitioner or Plaintiff. (See Texas Rules of Civil Procedure Rule 22.) The other side is usually called the Respondent in a civil case, but may be referred to as the Defendant. (See Texas Rules of Civil Procedure, Rule 99.)   

To give legal notice, ask the court clerk to issue citation, and arrange for a process server to give the citation to the person (or business) you’re suing.  You may not serve the respondent yourself

The only way to avoid formally serving the Respondent is if your case is uncontested and the respondent shows their agreement by signing and filing a Waiver of Citation.

Response: If the respondent receives notice of the case but thinks that they are outside of the court’s jurisdiction, then the respondent should file a Special Appearance before filing anything else.

Filing any other type of response before a Special Appearance will tell the court that the respondent submits to the court’s jurisdiction.

If the respondent does not have a jurisdictional challenge, they should file an Answer with the court clerk to show that they are interested in the case and are not ignoring the court’s authority. There is generally no fee to file an Answer. 

If the respondent has their own claims against the petitioner, then the respondent can tell the court about those claims in a Counter-Petition. There is usually a fee to file a Counter-Petition.  A statement of inability to pay costs can be used for a Counter-Petition to attempt to waive the filing fees. 

The trial phase of the civil litigation process will be very different if your case is uncontestedmeaning that both sides agree on what the final outcome of the case should be. If your case is uncontested, the trial phase should be very short and might be better thought of as a “hearing.”

During the final hearing of an uncontested case, you will present your signed order to the judge, answer any questions that the judge may have about your agreement, and then file the order with the court clerk once the judge has signed it.

If you and the other side of your case disagree about what the outcome of the case should be, then your case is contested. If your case is contested, then you will need to spend a lot of time preparing for trial.

To prepare for a contested trial, you should start by looking for an attorney who offers limited-scope representation and can coach you through the issues and strategies that might come up in the trial based on the facts of your case. You should also learn the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure, Texas Rules of Evidence, and trial objections and practice them regularly to be comfortable using them quickly and under pressure.

Watch TexasCourtHelp.org - Representing Yourself In Court.

Read Civil Trial Preparation.

Checklist Steps

The court system is complicated. While you generally have the right to represent yourself in civil court, the process will go more smoothly if you are represented by a lawyer who knows how to navigate the system.

To find a lawyer, use TexasLawHelp's Legal Help Directory.

Or contact aLawyer Referral Service. Such services can help connect you with a lawyer they have screened in advance. You pay $20 for a 30-minute consultation. After that consultation, you and the lawyer can discuss their regular fees and maybe negotiate them. 

Watch How Do I Find a Lawyer?, a video by TexasCourtHelp.

If you plan to represent yourself in a contested case, consider hiring a private attorney to provide you with limited-scope representation, also known as "unbundled legal services."

Not every attorney offers limited-scope representation. However, attorneys who provide limited-scope representation may help you prepare for court at a price you can afford. Limited scope representation is less expensive than hiring an attorney to go to court for you because you will complete most of the work yourself. However, talking to an experienced attorney about the presentation, procedures, and objections you are likely to see and use in court could determine whether you win or lose your case.

Watch How Do I Find a Lawyer?, a video by TexasCourtHelp that also includes information about limited scope representation.

Even if you hire a lawyer on a limited-scope basis to help you prepare your case, study court procedures to understand what is happening during your trial. Whether or not you are a lawyer, you will be expected to follow the same rules that lawyers must follow in court. These rules are called the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure.

Once you are in trial, you will not have the chance to research what is happening. Instead, you should prepare for different possible scenarios and outcomes in advance so that you are ready to participate even if things go differently than you expected.

Watch TexasCourtHelp.org - Representing Yourself In Court.

Also, watch other trials and hearings at Texas Court Live Streams

In addition to the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure, you should also spend time studying the Texas Rules of Evidence. These rules tell how to introduce and share important information about your case with the court.

As you study, make sure that you understand the legal concepts of relevance, privilege, hearsay, and admissibility. Understanding these concepts will help you learn objections that can be used to keep inadmissible or inappropriate information out of court. Read Gathering and Presenting Evidence.

Generally, if you disagree with the trial judge about what information should or should not be admitted into court, you need to say something about it during trial. This is because in most cases you will not be able to appeal your case, for that reason, unless the trial judge made a mistake despite your objection. Learning how to properly preserve a mistake for appeal will be part of your trial preparation. 

In court, you will need to clearly explain how the law applies to the facts of your case.

You will also need to know your case's legal concepts, available evidence, procedures, and rules.

This already is a lot of information to remember!

In court, you must be ready to apply and present all of this information while the other side interrupts you, tells the judge that your story is not believable, you do not understand the law, and then tells their version of the story that you might know or believe is untrue. To stay calm even in this stressful atmosphere, you will need to repeatedly practice what you want to say. 

Watch TexasCourtHelp.org - Getting Ready to Go to Court.

Whether you agree or disagree with the judge’s final decision, the judge's order may not be the end of the matter.

Checklist Steps

Whether you agree or disagree with the judge’s final decision, you should pay special attention to the deadlines that apply to post-trial action. These deadlines will tell you how long you must wait before your judgment is no longer eligible for appeal. Appeal standards are very complex and often overwhelming for non-attorneys. You should talk to an attorney about your case if you want to appeal the judge’s decision, or if the other side has an attorney to help them appeal a judgment in your favor.

If you were given improper notice about a case that resulted in a default judgment against you, then you may be able to have that decision set aside.  Getting a default judgment set aside is not easy, and is best done with the help of a licensed attorney.  If this has happened to you, you should act quickly to contact legal aid or a private attorney to help you set aside the default judgment. 

Read How to Set Aside a Default Judgment.

If you agree with the outcome of your case, you may still need to take extra steps to enforce the judge’s order after it is signed. Read the court order closely so that you understand what must be done to comply with the court order. Make sure you understand your obligations as well as the other side’s obligations to you. Look for deadlines that tell how long you and the other side each have to comply with the court order.

If the other side does not comply with the court order by the deadline, you may file a Motion to Enforce or a similarly titled document to tell the judge that the court order is not being followed.  What you file to enforce a judgment and the specific enforcement process will depend on your case type. For example, you can contact the Office of the Attorney General Child Support Division for help enforcing child support orders, and you can file a motion to enforce your right to court-ordered parenting time.

In general, to prepare to bring an enforcement action, gather any evidence that shows the other side is not following the court order. Based on this evidence, the judge will decide what steps are appropriate to make the other person obey the court order. Possible penalties for ignoring a court order can include fines, property liens, collection of property by a peace officer, license suspensions, and forcing the sale of certain property. 

If you disagree with the judge’s decision, you may be able to appeal it. An appeal takes place when an appellate court reviews what happened in the trial court. If the appellate court believes the trial court made a mistake (called an error) and believes the mistake made a difference in the outcome of your case (harmful error), the appellate court can change the trial court’s decision or send your case back to the trial court to be tried again.

For more information about appealing your case and about civil litigation in Texas, visit your local law library and review the following resources:

There are also books of legal forms called litigation guides and practice manuals.

Also see the Pro Se Appellate Guide and the State Bar of Texas Appellate Section's forms.

Articles in this guide