Q: 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. Complaints may be accompanied by an application to proceed in forma pauperis, meaning that the plaintiff is incapable of paying the filing fee. If the request is granted, the fees are waived.
Q: 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.
Q: How can I find a lawyer?
The South Carolina Bar offers lawyer referral services, without charge. 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 Criminal Justice Act, 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.
Q: How can I check on the status of my case? Can I review case files?
Your lawyer 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. 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 fee for the retrieval of information that is not readily available. A fee is assessed for providing copies of court documents.
WebPACER is a web based case information retrieval system that allows for the search and retrieval of case-related information through personal computers. Users must register with the PACER Service Center in order to access the system.
Access via the public counters in the Clerk's Office is free of charge. Access via the web or through an alternate dial-up method from home or office with a PACER Service Center assigned login and password is currently assessed a reasonable fee per page or minute of use.
Q: 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 sentencing, 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. Attorneys and/or litigants may be responsible. Cases may be delayed because settlement negotiations are in progress.