Getting started: First steps in a civil lawsuit

The courts cannot resolve all disputes
The courts cannot resolve every type of injustice or unfairness; you must have a legal claim to be able to proceed. If you must sue someone, be objective and gather ALL of the relevant facts. Just because you think you're "right" does not mean you’re going to win in court. You have to prove your case to the judge or a jury. If you do plan to file a court case, be as prepared as possible. Get as much information as you can about where the person or entity you are going to sue (the defendant) can be contacted, and whether the defendant has money to satisfy a judgment (pay your damages and costs if s/he loses).
How can I get an attorney?
If you wish to seek legal advice or representation, you should do so promptly. As soon as you are thinking about filing a lawsuit, or as soon as you receive any paperwork indicating you are being sued, seek legal advice and give the lawyer all paperwork in question. Do not wait until the day before the hearing to seek legal advice or assistance.
A number of legal services organizations may be able to help you get a lawyer at little or no charge, depending on your financial ability. More information on finding legal assistance is available on our Resources page.  Also, older individuals may find legal help in their county by contacting their local Office of Aging.
Additionally, some cases arise from incidents in which insurance coverage is available (examples: car accidents, slips and falls). Did you have insurance when the event happened? If so, tell your insurance company that you have been sued. If the event was covered by insurance, check if the insurance company is going to provide a lawyer to defend the claim. Even if it is, you may still want to explore getting your own attorney.
Take paperwork you receive very seriously
Read everything you receive regarding your case thoroughly. NEVER ignore documents you receive: you must take action. For example, if you are being sued, you will have to file an answer, which is a response to the complaint, by the court–imposed deadline to avoid a default judgment (losing due to a failure to respond or show up to court).
How do I know if I’m in the right court? 

  • You cannot sue someone in whatever court you feel like. You can only bring a case against someone in the judicial district where that individual lives or where the event, transaction, or occurrence that you are suing over happened.
  • There are sixty judicial districts in Pennsylvania. The judicial districts generally follow the boundaries of Pennsylvania’s sixty-seven counties, except that seven judicial districts each cover two counties. To find your judicial district, use our County Court Finder.

If I don’t have an attorney, what do I do to bring a lawsuit?

  • Contact the local Court Clerk (or Prothonotary) for information on accessing the local rules, filing fees, procedures for service, and to find out if your court has a Pro Se Clerk to help people representing themselves. To find your County Court Information, visit our County Court Finder.
  • In order to bring a lawsuit, you must first file a complaint. This is a document where you explain why you are suing. Click here to download a template for a civil complaint.
  • A complaint should be brief and plainly worded, but it has to be specific enough to show that you would win the case if all of the facts you alleged turned out to be true. If your complaint does not meet this requirement, your case will be dismissed by the judge before trial. 
  • In some counties, you can file a complaint electronically. For example, Philadelphia uses a civil E-Filing system, where you can send and receive documents, pay filing fees, notify other parties, receive court notices, and retrieve court information. If you are filing a court case in Philadelphia and have no access to the internet, you can use the E-Filing Center in City Hall Room 127. More information about E-Filing in Philadelphia can be found in this manual.
  • After you file your complaint, you must formally serve (a legal form of delivery) the opposing party, either by mail or in person. Your Clerk of Court’s office can explain to you the relevant rules and procedures and provide you with the necessary forms.

If I don't have an attorney, what do I do if I am being sued?

  • If you are being sued, you do not file a complaint. Instead, you have to file an answer. In the answer, you must admit or deny the allegations the plaintiff made in his or her complaint. Click here to download a sample answer.
  • Make sure to respond to all of the plaintiff’s allegations. The judge will treat any unanswered allegations as admitted. This can have devastating effects on your defense.
  • After you file your answer, you must formally serve (a legal form of delivery) the opposing party, either by mail or in person. Your Clerk of Court’s office can explain to you the relevant rules and procedures and provide you with the necessary forms.

Does it cost anything to file a case, and if so, how do I make payments to the court?

  • Filing a court case is not free. You have to pay filing and service fees to the court, unless you can prove that you cannot afford to do so. If because of your economic circumstances you are unable to pay filing fees and court costs, you might be permitted to have them waived in forma pauperis (a Latin expression that literally means “in the manner of a poor person”).  Information and forms regarding filing in forma pauperis are available here.
  • The Clerk’s Office has lists documenting fees for different court filings. Check these lists to ensure that you have the proper amount and form of payment to accompany your court filings.
  • If you are a defendant, there are various payments that may need to be made depending on the type of case you are involved in. Various methods of payment are available. See, for example, Citizens' Guide to Court Procedure Making Payments to the Court (discussing a broad range of the relevant cases -- from Traffic Court cases to adult criminal cases -- including the cases that involve bail payments).

Is there anywhere else I can look for information?

Yes, there are lots of places. PMC has compiled a list of guides and other resources for self-represented litigants. Click here.
Disclaimer: PMC does not provide legal advice or represent clients in court or other legal proceedings. This guide is created solely to help individuals navigate the courts. It does not serve as a substitute for legal advice and should not be interpreted as such.
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