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FAQs: Filing a Case

  1. How do I file a civil case? Is there a charge?
  2. How do I file a criminal case?
  3. How do I file for bankruptcy? Is there a charge?
  4. How can I find a lawyer?
  5. How can I check on the status of my case? Can I review case files?
  6. When will the court reach a decision in my case?
  7. How are judges assigned to cases?
  8. How do I file a complaint against a judge?

How do I file a civil case? Is there a charge?

A civil action is commenced by the filing of a complaint. Parties instituting a civil action in a district court are required to pay a filing fee pursuant to Title 28, U.S. Code, Section 1914. The current fee is $350. Complaints may be accompanied by an application to proceed in forma pauperis, meaning that the plaintiff is incapable of paying the filing fee. Proceedings in forma pauperis are governed by Title 28, U.S. Code, Section 1915.

How do I file a criminal case?

Individuals do not file criminal charges in U.S. district courts. A criminal proceeding is initiated by the government, usually through the U.S. attorney's office in coordination with a law enforcement agency. Allegations of criminal behavior should be brought to local police, the FBI, or other appropriate law enforcement agency.

How do I file for bankruptcy? Is there a charge?

A bankruptcy case is commenced by the filing of a petition. You must also file a statement of your assets and liabilities, and schedules listing your creditors. If you choose to file a bankruptcy petition without the assistance of an attorney, you can obtain the required forms at most stationery stores or at

Filing fees for bankruptcy cases vary, depending on the chapter of the bankruptcy code under which you file. Chapter 7, by far the most common form filed by individuals, involves an almost complete liquidation of the assets of the debtor, as well as a discharge of most debts. See Bankruptcy Basics.

How can I find a lawyer?

In most districts, local bar associations or similar groups offer lawyer referral services, usually without charge. The clerk's office in your district court should be able to put you in touch with such a service. Many clerk's offices also have developed informational packets explaining filing procedures and listing sources of legal assistance. Personnel in the clerk's office and other federal court employees are prohibited from providing legal advice to individual litigants.

Defendants in criminal proceedings have a right to a lawyer, and are entitled by the Criminal Justice Act (CJA) to have counsel appointed at government expense if they are financially unable to obtain adequate representation by private counsel. The CJA, which is set forth in Title 18, U.S. Code, Section 3006A, requires a court determination that a person is financially eligible for court-appointed counsel. A court may determine that a defendant is partially eligible for court-appointed counsel and order the defendant to contribute to the cost of representation. Counsel assigned to a defendant may be a private lawyer, who is a member of the court's panel of attorneys receiving CJA appointments, or, in many districts, an attorney who works for a federal defender organization. The clerk's office has forms that can be used to apply for the appointment of counsel.

There is no right to free legal assistance in civil proceedings. Some litigants proceed pro se; that is, they represent themselves before the court.

How can I check on the status of my case? Can I review case files?

Your lawyer, who likely is familiar with local court practice, is your best resource. Generally, all documents filed with a court are public records and are available through the clerk's office. By way of exception, some documents are sealed by special court order, and some documents are confidential by operation of law, such as grand jury materials and criminal files relating to juveniles.

As the keeper of court records, the clerk's office responds to most inquiries on the status of a case once given the specific case name or docket number. In many courts, inquiries for information and requests to examine dockets, case files, exhibits, and other records are made at the intake area in the clerk's office. Inquiries often are made by phone. There is a $26 fee for every search of the records conducted by the clerk's office. A fee of $ .50 per page is assessed for reproducing any record or paper record or $ .10 per page, for printing copies of any records or document accessed electronically at the public access terminal in the courthouse.

Almost all federal courts have automated systems that allow for the search and retrieval of case-related information through personal computers at public counters and through an internet service called PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records). Electronic access to case-related information is available free of charge at the public counter in the clerk's office of most courts. The PACER service, which provides remote access to case-related information for registered users, currently assesses a fee of $.08 per page.

In many bankruptcy and appellate courts there also are telephone information systems, which enable callers to obtain basic case information through the use of a touch tone phone. These systems are provided free of charge, are available 24 hours a day, and have a toll free number for long distance service.

For more information, visit the PACER website.

When will the court reach a decision in my case?

Most cases are handled in an expeditious manner. The Speedy Trial Act of 1974 establishes standard time requirements for the timely prosecution and disposition of criminal cases in district courts. There is no similar law governing civil trial scheduling, and as a result, the scheduling of criminal cases is assigned a higher priority.

In 1990, Congress enacted legislation that directs each district court to devise and adopt a civil expense and delay reduction plan. One goal established under the legislation is for each civil case to be scheduled for trial within 18 months of filing the complaint.

Litigants should keep in mind that judges have many duties in addition to deciding cases. The average district court judge has more than 400 newly filed cases to contend with each year. In addition to trials, judges conduct sentencings, pretrial conferences, settlement conferences, motions hearings, write orders and opinions, and consider other court matters both in the courtroom and in their chambers.

There are numerous reasons for delay, many of which are outside of a court's control, and for which attorneys and/or litigants may be responsible. Cases may be delayed because settlement negotiations are in progress. Some courts also experience shortages in judges or available courtrooms.

How are judges assigned to cases?

Judge assignment methods vary. The basic considerations in making assignments are to assure equitable distribution of caseloads and avoid judge shopping. By statute, the chief judge of each district court has the responsibility to enforce the court's rules and orders on case assignments. Each court has a written plan or system for assigning cases. The majority of courts use some variation of a random drawing. One simple method is to rotate the names of available judges. At times judges having special expertise can be assigned cases by type, such as complex criminal cases, asbestos-related cases, or prisoner cases. The benefit of this system is that it takes advantage of the expertise developed by judges in certain areas. Sometimes cases may be assigned based on geographical considerations. For example, in a large geographical area it may be best to assign a case to a judge located at the site where the case was filed. Courts also have a system to check if there is any conflict that would make it improper for a judge to preside over a particular case.

How do I file a complaint against a judge?

The complaint process is not intended to address complaints related to the merits of a case or a court's decision. Any person alleging that a judge of the United States has engaged in conduct prejudicial to the effective and expeditious administration of the business of the courts, or that such officer cannot discharge all the duties of the office because of physical or mental disability, may file a complaint with the clerk of the court of appeals for that circuit or applicable national court. The statute governing this complaint mechanism is set out at Title 28, U.S. Code, Section 351(a). Each circuit court of appeals web site has information about how to file a complaint in that circuit.