Why Does a Lawsuit Take So Long?


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One of the most common questions attorneys get while representing a client is “when will this case be over?” This is an obvious question given that the attorney probably costs money, the lawsuit takes time and energy, and living with worries about the outcome of the case can be a constant source of stress. Still, lawsuits take time, and parties who expect a case to be over in a few weeks are usually disappointed. So, why does a lawsuit take so long?

There are, no doubt, the cynics who believe any delay in a case is due to an attorney trying to milk the file and make more money. But, in reality, much of the delay of most cases is out of either party's hands. First, there are delays built right into the rules of procedure. For instance, after filing a case, the plaintiff usually has several months to serve the lawsuit on the other party (120 days in most jurisdictions). The other side then gets several weeks to prepare a response to the case (20 days is common). That equates to almost 5 months, and the case has not progressed any further than pleading! Of course, if the defendant files a motion instead of a pleading, such as a motion to dismiss or for more definite statement, this time frame can be extended even further to allow time for a hearing, ruling, and amendment by one of the parties. It is not uncommon for the pleading stage of many cases to take six months by itself, or even longer.

Although it can commence before the pleadings are fully framed, many prefer to wait on discovery until the issues are clearly laid out in the pleadings. Each form of discovery has a response time attached to it, usually 30 days, meaning if one sends out a request for production, the other side has 30 days to submit a response. Often, one will want the response to one form of discovery and an opportunity to review it, before propounding further discovery requests in order to see what evidence and admissions they already have and what they still need. If a dispute arises over a request that asks for something objectionable or a refusal to comply with a valid request, then a hearing on a motion to compel or motion for protective order must be set for hearing, and many courts have dockets that are full for several months in advance. The discovery phase is easily the most time consuming portion of most cases, and can literally last for several years in complex cases, and usually a minimum of several months in the best of cases.

Finally, when the parties are ready, it is time for the trial phase. While a trial can last for just a few hours to several weeks, depending on the issues litigated, getting an actual trial date can often be time consuming, as well. Often a hearing must be scheduled to discuss pre-trial hearings for matters like motions limiting certain evidence, meetings of the parties to discuss which evidence will be stipulated to and which will be contested, conducting a mediation, etc. These pre-trial procedures often take several months by themselves, then one must find an available spot on the judge's trial calendar. Often, in busier jurisdictions, a judge may run a list of cases eligible for trial with the oldest one getting to go first during a judge's trial week. Unfortunately, this can mean waiting for months while older cases go to trial during a judge's limited trial weeks.

Once the trial is over, the case often is not yet over. There are still post-trial motions that may be filed, like motions challenging the verdict. If one party feels an error was made at trial by the judge, they might file a motion for rehearing, reconsideration, or a notice of appeal. An appeal starts a whole new series of legal proceedings that can last for months or years. If no appeal is filed, enforcing the judgment may also take time. Sometimes discovery in aid of execution must take place in order to locate a party's assets that can satisfy the judgment. Again, this process can take months or even years depending on how forthcoming the party is, and given the fact that most of these requests are also going to have a 30 day window to respond.

Consequently, before you get angry with your attorney about a case taking too long, be aware that he or she may have little control over that. The process takes time, and the bottle neck is usually at the courthouse. Remember, in most states the court system only takes in a small percentage of the annual budget (often as little as 5-8 percent) despite being 1/3 of the three branches of government. The courts usually do the best they can with limited resources, but the result in many jurisdictions is delay. Of course, some see this as a hidden blessing. If a case takes time, that is more opportunity for the parties to reconcile their differences outside of court and to reach a settlement. In any event, without an attorney, this process can be even longer and more costly, as the party who represents itself often makes many mistakes that cause more delays and more expense. As a result, it is always advisable to have the assistance of an attorney when taking or responding to any sort of legal action.

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Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.

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