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The Courts

  • Lawsuits and non-criminal court procedures
  • The Right to Appeal
  • Youth Court

 


Lawsuits and Non-Criminal Court Procedures

What is a lawsuit?

A lawsuit is a claim or dispute brought to the court system by a person or group, called the plaintiff, against another person or group, called the defendant.  The plaintiff asks the court to order the defendant to do something like pay damages, or to stop doing something that causes harm to the plaintiff.  For example, the plaintiff could ask the court to order the defendant to pay for injuries caused in an automobile accident.  The plaintiff could also ask the court to order the defendant to move out of a rental unit if the defendant has not paid the rent when due.  

Except for criminal cases, in which the government accuses a defendant of committing a crime, lawsuits are called civil cases.  See section 1 of this guide for more information about criminal cases.  Civil cases include divorces, landlord/tenant disputes, contract disputes, personal injuries and other injuries that are physical or financial.  Civil lawsuits are most often disputes between two individuals or groups of individuals, and do not involve the government.

Who is involved in civil lawsuits?

Generally, a civil lawsuit has one or more plaintiffs, defendants, lawyers, and a judge.  Often the plaintiff brings a lawsuit, or sues the defendant because the plaintiff thinks the defendant has injured him or her.  The plaintiff and the defendant are called the parties to the lawsuit.  The plaintiff and the defendant can each have a lawyer.  Lawyers are trained in the law and the court procedures for lawsuits, and how to argue for their clients.  The judge oversees the whole lawsuit process.

What happens in a lawsuit?

To bring a lawsuit, the plaintiff files a document called a complaint with the court.  The complaint explains what the dispute is about and states what relief the plaintiff is asking for.  The defendant then has a chance to file a document called an answer.  The defendant can argue that he or she is not to blame, that the plaintiff was not injured, or that the law does not hold him or her to blame. 

The parties may conduct discovery, which means collect information from each other and other persons as permitted by a set of court rules.  The parties may also file motions, which are requests to the court to decide a variety of questions about the law and how the lawsuit will proceed.  Often the plaintiff and defendant can reach an agreement and drop the lawsuit.  This is called settling the case.  If the parties don’t settle, the lawsuit will eventually go to trial.  At trial, either a judge or a jury will hear the evidence and arguments presented by the plaintiff and the defendant, and will decide who wins the case.  After the judge or the jury makes a final decision on the dispute, a plaintiff or defendant who is not satisfied with the decision may then appeal the case to a higher court.

Should I sue someone who has hurt me or my property?

Lawsuits are time consuming, stressful, and expensive.  It can end up costing more money to sue someone than the amount in dispute.  So it really makes sense to first try to resolve the problem without a lawsuit.  However, if that doesn’t work, laws exist to help people who are harmed by other people’s actions.  A lawyer can help you decide whether to sue someone.  If you don’t have a lawyer, you can look at the court system website for the forms you need to file with the court to bring a lawsuit. 

Do I have to hire a lawyer?

No, you don’t have to, but maybe you really should.  Some lawsuits are simple and some are very complicated.  For example, “small claims” cases are disputes over small amounts of money (less than $10,000).  The court procedures for small claims are relatively easy to understand because they are intended to be used by people who do not have lawyers.  The court has forms and instructions for bringing a small claims case or defending yourself if you are sued in a small claims case.  View forms to use and more information about small claims on the Alaska Court website.

Other lawsuits are much more complicated.  The case may have more than one plaintiff or defendant, and involve large sums of money and complicated laws.  You should consider how complicated your case is and how important the issue is in deciding whether to hire a lawyer.  Lawyers can be expensive but can also be worth the cost depending on your case.  Depending on your situation, you may be able to get cheap or free legal services from the government or nonprofits.

What do I do if someone sues me?   

A lawyer can help you defend yourself in court.  You should very seriously consider hiring one if you have a lot at stake in the case.  If you don’t have a lawyer, the court system will give you the forms you need to file in your defense.  It is scary to be sued – but it does not automatically mean that you are at fault.

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The Right to Appeal

What is an appeal?

If you lose all or part of a civil lawsuit in which you sue someone or are sued, you have a right to appeal the decision to a higher court.  If you are convicted in a criminal case, you have a right to appeal the conviction or the sentence imposed by the judge.  An appeal is a request by the losing party asking a higher court to overturn an order or decision of the judge who decided the case or made rulings at a civil or criminal trial.  An appeal is basically a way of saying that you believe that the lower court made a mistake in applying the law in your case, and you are asking the higher court to correct that mistake.  The right to appeal is important because it helps to assure that you are protected from a mistake by the court.  In Alaska, an appeal is usually taken from a final decision of a Superior Court judge to the Alaska Supreme Court.

Do I need an attorney to help me appeal?

Although having a lawyer is not required, you should seriously consider hiring one if you want to an appeal the outcome of a civil or criminal case.  If you choose to appeal without a lawyer, you must study and follow the applicable Alaska Rules of Appellate Procedure.  If you fail to follow the appellate rules, which include procedures and deadlines for submitting your arguments to the court, your appeal can be dismissed.  The procedures and other requirements for an appeal are not simple, and it is difficult for a person without legal training to follow them accurately.  Lawyers can help clients decide whether to appeal.  Lawyers are trained to follow the court requirements, and to make the arguments that give you the best chance of succeeding in an appeal.

When can I appeal?

If you want to appeal a court decision, it is very important to follow the timing rules.  An appeal is not automatic.  You must take action to appeal your case.  Generally, you must wait until the lower court issues a written final decision, and must file various appeal papers required by the court system within 30 days after the date of that decision.  The required appeal papers include a “Notice of Appeal,” and “Points on Appeal,” which means a list of the reasons why you think the lower court’s decision was incorrect.  There may be additional court forms and you may be required to pay a filing fee and post a bond.  This guide can only give you general suggestions.  If you choose to appeal without the help of a lawyer, you must read and follow the Rules of Appellate Procedure precisely.

I want to appeal the final decision in my case.  What do I do next?

In Alaska, you are entitled to one appeal as a matter of right.  This means that if you go to court, the court or jury rules against you, and you request an appeal, the higher court must hear your case.  You do not have this right if you plead guilty in a criminal case.  Your appeal must be based on one of the following grounds:

  • the original hearing was not conducted according to required procedures,
  • your constitutional rights were violated, or
  • the outcome was unfair or based on insufficient evidence.

 

If the court rules against you in your first appeal, you may be able to appeal that decision too.  But the reviewing court does not have to hear your second appeal.  It may do so but does not have to.

One important thing to remember is that if you are in detention (jail) at the time of appeal, you will likely have to stay there through the appeals process.

What happens in an appeal?

Once the required appeal papers are filed, a timeline begins to run.  Your attorney will have a certain number of days to submit a brief to the court.  A brief is a document stating the facts, the points of law, and the arguments in your case.  If the parties ask for oral argument, the court will set a date for it.  At oral argument, the attorneys for both sides will have a limited time to explain or argue their cases for the judges.  The judges can ask as many questions as they like during this time.  After oral argument, the court will consider the arguments and issue a decision.

I’ve appealed.  What could happen?

In an appeal, the higher court can affirm, or agree with, the lower court’s judgment. If you brought the appeal, this mean you lose the case.  The court could also reverse the lower court’s decision.  Sometimes, when an appeal court reverses a lower court decision, it will send the case back to the lower court, and tell the lower court to correct the mistake by conducting a new trial.  The higher court could also reverse and issue a new final decision that reaches a different conclusion.  Finally, the court could dismiss the case entirely if it decides it does not have jurisdiction (that is, authority) to hear it.

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Youth Court

What is Youth Court?

In Youth Court, other teenagers are your judges and lawyers.  This means that your peers will determine the consequences of your actions.  Youth judges can order you to do a certain number of hours of community service, pay restitution, attend education classes, or write essays or apologies to the victim, your parents, or other youth.

How can I go to Youth Court instead of regular court?

You must agree to go to Youth Court.  You can only participate in Youth Court if you admit to committing the offense that you are charged with.  The judges do not decide whether or not you committed the offense, but only what the consequences will be.  Youth Court only handles offenses that would be misdemeanors if committed by adults.  These typically include petty theft or shoplifting, minor assaults, and marijuana, alcohol, or tobacco offenses.  You can only have one offense submitted to Youth Court.

If you are eligible for Youth Court and decide to do it, you will be assigned a youth lawyer who will help you present a case for why the youth judges should be lenient with you.  Another youth lawyer will argue why the consequences for you should be more severe.  Instead you and your lawyer could agree to a deal with the other lawyer, although the judges must still approve the deal.  Your parents have the right to attend Youth Court.  An adult lawyer will also be present, but only to make sure your rights are protected.  In most cases, the adults will not say or do anything during the proceeding.  Youth Court is confidential and no one may attend except for you, the youth judges and lawyers, your parents or guardians, and one adult lawyer.

In Youth Court, the punishment is often a requirement to perform a number of hours of community work service.  To determine the number of community work service hours you must do, the judges will start at a benchmark, depending upon the seriousness of your offense.  They will then subtract hours for certain mitigators (circumstances that partly excuse the crime and reduce the sentence) and add hours for certain aggravators (circumstances that make the crime worse and the punishment greater). 

Typical mitigators include: 

  • you are under fifteen years old,
  • you have no history of trouble with the authorities,
  • you admitted to the crime when confronted by authorities,
  • the crime was principally committed by another person. 

Typical aggravators include: 

  • you are over fifteen years old,
  • you have a prior criminal record,
  • you were older than and influenced another person who was with you at the time you committed the crime.

Another sentence often imposed in Youth Court is a requirement to attend a class on the negative effects of the offense you committed, or on decision-making skills.  Your sentence is also likely to include an essay discussing what you learned through the process of being arrested and participating in Youth Court.

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