You and the Law
In many cases, a personís first encounter with the Law comes when they are unexpectedly thrust into a situation requiring their participation in a legal action. The following is not intended to be a complete guide to the law or advice in handling any particular legal situation. Do not act upon the following in any way. Instead, if you encounter a legal problem, seek the advice of a competent attorney. The following is for informational purposes only.
Origins of American Law
Much of the law in the United States of America is based upon the "common law" of England. Common law is simply ancient principles of law that developed through society and gradually refined through decisions of the courts and legislative acts. Both our criminal law and civil law have origins in common law, some of which has remained unchanged for generations.
Criminal actions are brought by or in the name of the United States of America or a state governing body. Criminal law is distinguishable from civil law by the potential for a defendant to be punished by imprisonment and fines and the defendantís right to be convicted only when the evidence is certain beyond a reasonable doubt. Certain special Constitutional Rights also are implicated in criminal cases, notably a defendantís right not to give evidence against himself or be required to present any defense in court. Most attorneys will advise their clients not to participate in police interrogations, consent to searches or voluntarily waive any right without the benefit of the advice of or presence of an attorney.
Civil cases begin with the parties equally situated, neither having those rights attendant to criminal cases. The standard of proof is one of simply a preponderance (meaning one side having a greater weight than the other). In other words, a party to a civil case typically need only prove his case to a greater likelihood rather than some absolute degree of proof.
In both civil and criminal cases, questions of facts are generally reserved for a jury while questions of law are decided by a judge. In most legal systems outside the United States, parties do not have a right to a jury. Some countries however have systems that incorporate "lay judges" in a panel of judges sitting on a case.
Courts of the United States of America
Trials in our Federal Court system are typically conducted at the District Court level. Each state is divided into geographical districts appropriate to the size and population. For example, West Virginia is divided into two districts, the Southern District of West Virginia and the Northern District of West Virginia. Appellate matters are pursued through circuit courts. In our case, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, www.ca4.uscourts.gov, headquartered in Richmond, Virginia. Further appeals can be made to the United States Supreme Court. www.supremecourtus.gov
Misdemeanor criminal offenses and small civil claims are typically addressed by municipal courts or county magistrate courts. More serious litigation, both civil and criminal, is performed by way of circuit court trials. The circuit courts of West Virginia are organized by geographical circuits. To learn more about the Circuit Court in your jurisdiction click here. www.state.wv.us/wvsca/circuits/map.htm
Appeals from verdicts or decisions from the circuit courts may be taken to the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. www.state.wv.us/wvsca In certain instances, further appeals may be taken through the federal courts.
The decision to proceed to court with or without an attorney is usually based on the litigantís ability to pay for legal services, the complexity or simplicity of the case, and confidence in your individual ability. For more information on pro se litigation (representing yourself), more information may be found at www.state.wv.us/wvsca/ProSe/newself_help4.htm
Should you decide to proceed with the assistance of an attorney, select someone with whom you can easily communicate, understands your case and you feel will vigorously and competently pursue your interests.