Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Dec 9, 2010

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It is almost impossible to give an exact time as to when a civil case will go to trial before a judge or jury. Each different jurisdiction will on its own determine the time it should take, balancing notions of fairness to the parties involved and their need to adequately prepare with the court system’s own need for judicial economy (use of court resources) and judicial efficiency (use of the court’s time). Certainly large municipalities like Philadelphia, with numerous cases going before judge and jury on a daily basis, will deal with its time constraints in a different manner than a small city like Billings, Montana.

At best, an estimate of the time it will take for a civil case to go to trial may be gained from viewing the steps it has to first take to get there. A small claims case filed in Philadelphia, for example, may include in the copy of the lawsuit served upon the defendant a subpoena with an initial status hearing already scheduled before the judge. At the statuts hearing, the judge will determine if the parties are ready to proceed to trial. A continuance for further preparation time by either party is either granted or denied, at the judge’s discretion. When the judge determines the parties are or should be ready, trial is scheduled. 

Some jurisdictions may require that alternative dispute resolutions methods be used to dispose of the case, or to resolve it, before it actually is sent to the trial court. One common alternative method includes arbitration, where the parties agree that in submitting the case to a non-judge or arbitrator to decide, they will be bound by the arbitrator’s decision. Another alternative method is mediation, where a non-judge known as a mediator attempts to help the parties resolve their differences and settle the case.

Depending on the above factors and others such as the discovery process, availability of witnesses and the court’s own schedule of cases, it can be estimated that trial in small claims court may be held somewhere around six months after the case is filed, and possibly longer. Of course, other types of civil cases, such as custody or divorce matters, or cases that are initiated in a higher trial court than small claims will have a different time line before trial takes place.