By Robert Murdoch
Now that I’ve convinced you that you can’t venture into court without knowing the rules, your next question is probably “ok – I have to know the rules – where do I find them and what do they mean?” Good and fair questions. Let’s deal with the first one and save the second one for another time.
How to find the rules that you need to follow unfortunately varies a lot depending on what court you are in and whether you are looking for federal or state rules.
The federal rules are absurdly easy to find. Just type ‘federal rules of civil procedure’ into any search engine and viola – you will be presented with a dozen or so options to access the text of those rules. Here’s a link to the rules that can be downloaded in pdf format. The rules are numbered and follow somewhat of a sequential pattern. That is Rule 1 specifies the scope of the rules, Rule 2 addresses the form of action in federal courts, Rule 3 talks about how to start an action,, and rule 4 discusses how to serve the summons and complaint. Further along you will see rules addressing the pleadings, how to count time and what must be in the pleadings (Rules 6, 7 and 8). It’s a fairly logical presentation which is good in that many states have adopted or tailored their own rules to track the federal. It will make your life much easier.
Finding the state rules can range from being just as straightforward (just enter “Rules of Civil Procedure and the name of your state into a search engine), to a veritable state of chaos where you have to look in several different places for different rules. A perfect example of the latter is Pennsylvania where you end up searching up to four different sets of rules and statutes to be sure you have a handle on what you need to do. When you are confronted with such a situation do the same as in other situations – but search on a few different items. If you do a search and see that there are different sources, do searches on Rules of Court, Rules of Civil Procedure, and Discovery Rules for your state. Use the table of contents of the federal rules of civil procedure as a sort of checklist to be sure you’ve found everything you need. That is did your searches return rules governing all the topics identified by the sections in the FRCP? Do you see rules on how to start an action? How to get parties served? How to file motions? What kind of discovery is allowed? The federal rules really are a very good framework in terms of covering each part of a civil case, and if you have found state rules that address the same things as the federal rules, you will most likely be in pretty good shape.
Another good practice is to select from your search results annotated versions of the rules. These will give you in the form of footnotes the version history of the rules as well as possible cross references to other rules.
You must also be aware that in addition to federal or statewide rules, there are often local rules, that is rules that apply specifically to the court that you are in. The clearest example of this is in the federal court system where each district and appellate court has their own set of rules. Those are easy to find because each federal court has its own website and local rules will be published there.
Finally, understand that you must also research case law in order to understand what the rules really mean. English is not always English in things legal. A perfect example is Rule 8 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. It states in part:
(a) CLAIM FOR RELIEF. A pleading that states a claim for relief must contain:
(2) (2) a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief; and
Short, simple and to the point right? Actually, no.
This particular provision, telling you how to assert a claim for relief has been the subject of literally hundreds of appellate court decisions including the infamous decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court (Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly and Ashcroft v. Iqbal) that completely re-wrote what has to be in a complaint in federal court. Just looking at the rule as quoted above will not give you the information that you need in order to comply with the rule. You have to find the rules of course, but understand that the literal text of the rules is nothing but a good starting point in continuing your research.