How are laws made?
Law is made by both the legislature and the courts. This occurs at both the state and federal levels. Law made by a judge in deciding cases is called common law. Decisions made by judges may be written and published in books and may be relied upon by lawyers and others in cases with similar facts. Judges or courts only have the power to make laws regarding cases presented before the court for a decision.
What happens after a law is passed?
Where legislatures have passed laws, courts must follow their laws unless the law violates the constitution. In many situations, when the law is unclear or does not adequately cover the facts of a case, the court will have to interpret the law.
How does the constitution affect laws?
Laws must not violate the constitution. The United States Constitution guarantees such things as the right to free speech, freedom of religion, and due process of law, which means the right to notice, and in most cases, a trial before one can be deprived of liberty or property.
What is the difference between civil and criminal law?
There is an important distinction between criminal laws and civil laws. Generally, in a criminal case, the case is brought by the government against an individual. The government brings criminal charges in order to protect society, punish the offender, or deter others from similar action. Civil law, or common law is generally used to help private citizens or businesses resolve disputes. For example, if you are in an automobile accident that was another driver's fault, you may sue the other driver for money damages. The person who files a lawsuit is referred to as the "plaintiff" and the person being sued is the "defendant."
What happens in a criminal case?
The United States Constitution states that an individual charged with a crime is presumed innocent until proven guilty. In addition, if an individual is charged with a crime for which loss of freedom may be imposed as a penalty, the accused has the right to have a court appointed attorney if the individual cannot afford an attorney. The government attorney is sometimes called "the prosecutor" or "District Attorney" or "U.S. Attorney." Penalties for committing a crime vary with the seriousness of the crime and may include death (for aggravated murder), imprisonment, probation, or fines. The legislature sets forth sentencing guidelines, which help determine the punishment.
What happens in a civil case?
In a civil case, the plaintiff usually asks for money damages from the defendant, or asks the court to order the defendant to do something or not to do something from taking certain action. In a divorce case, the person filing the complaint may be asking the court to declare that the marriage is over, divide the marital property, determine child or spousal support, and resolve issues regarding custody and visitation of minor children. People are not sentenced to jail in a civil case unless, in a specific situation, a defendant willfully fails to obey a court order. When a civil lawsuit is filed with the court, the plaintiff must have a "summons" served on the defendant. The "summons," which also includes a copy of the complaint filed with the court, is delivered to the defendant. In Oregon, the defendant has 30 days to file a paper called an "answer" or "motion" with the court. If the defendant fails to file an answer or motion, the plaintiff may automatically win. Sometimes, the time period to respond to a summons is shorter. If you are served with a summons, read it carefully to determine what action must be taken and when. You should consult with an attorney for advice and assistance in filing an answer to the summons and complaint.
What is Juvenile Court?
The Juvenile Court has authority over juveniles who commit acts which would be crimes if committed by adults. Under Oregon law, a juvenile is anyone under the age of eighteen who has not been legally emancipated. Some more serious crimes committed by a juvenile are now automatically deferred to adult court under recent legislation. The Juvenile Court's jurisdiction also extends to juveniles who misbehave in some ways which would not be criminal if done by an adult. The Juvenile Court also has authority over juveniles who are dependent or have been abandoned by parents or subject to cruelty. This constitutes dependency jurisdiction. In circumstances of abuse, abandonment or neglect, juveniles may be made wards of the court and removed from the home temporarily or permanently. For more information on foster care and termination of parental rights, check here.
What about Small Claims Court?
Small claims court is a court in which disputes involving less than $3,500 are decided quickly and economically. The hearings are informal, and you do not need a lawyer. In fact, lawyers are allowed to represent people in small claims court only with special permission from the judge. Your lawyer can help you get ready for your small claims court case, organize your evidence for you, and advise you on what to say. For more information on small claims court, refer to legal topic Small Claims Court.
What is a subpoena?
If you have received a legal document called a subpoena from a process server, it is important that you know what a subpoena is and what it means to you. A subpoena is an order, issued by the court, that requires you to appear in person at a certain place date and time to testify as a witness about a particular case. You are required to appear at that place on the date and time listed on the subpoena. Should you fail to appear as directed by the subpoena, you could be found in contempt of court, which could lead to a jail term. For more information on subpoenas, read What is a Subpoena?
What does it mean to be a witness in a lawsuit?
A witness in a lawsuit has a very important job. As a witness, you must tell the truth to your best ability. A witness who knowingly does not tell the truth is subject to criminal prosecution. The lawyer calling you as a witness or other lawyers involved in the case may discuss the case with you before the trial. There is nothing improper about this. It is the lawyer's job to try to find out before the trial what you know about the case. He/she can explain courtroom procedures to you. However, you do not have to talk to the lawyer before the trial if you do not wish to. For more information on being a witness, read What You Should Know About Being a Witness.
What happens on jury duty?
Oregon's lawyers and judges have prepared the Handbook for Jurors. This handbook, produced by the Oregon State Bar, provides an overview of the jury selection and examination processes; the stages of a trial; evidence and objections to evidence; conduct of jurors in and out of the jury room; an explanation of different state and federal courts; and a glossary of legal terms of the court.
If I need a lawyer, how do I find one?
If you have questions about your legal rights and responsibilities, contact an attorney. For information on finding an attorney, go to How to Find Legal Help in Oregon. For information on working with a lawyer, read the OSB's legal links pamphlet, You and Your Lawyer.