Procedural Law

The courts, in the U.S. legal system, do not have carte blanc to do whatever they please when cases are brought before them. In order to help ensure that the laws are applied fairly, there are certain rules and procedures that must be enforced when a court hears any case, whether civil or criminal. This set of laws, rules, and procedures is known as “procedural law.” To explore this concept, consider the following procedural law definition.

Definition of Procedural Law


  1. A body of law that sets forth the methods, rules, and procedures for court cases.


Roman law

What is Procedural Law

Procedural law is the body of law that deals with the technical aspects, such as duties and procedures for obtaining redress for a wrong. Procedural law is the rules of conducting a legal action. This is in contrast to “substantive law,” which refers to the actual laws by which a crime may be charged, or which govern how the facts of the case will be accepted and presented.

Difference Between Procedural Law and Substantive Law

Procedural and substantive law work together to ensure that legal matters and handled properly toward fairly administered justice. For all that, there is a difference between procedural law and substantive law.

Procedural Law

Procedural law specifies the process that each case must go through to its conclusion, which does not necessarily mean the case goes trial. Everything, from the investigation into a matter, through filing a civil lawsuit or criminal charges, through evidence gathering and sharing, and through the settlement process – or trial – must follow a specific procedure outlined by law.

For example, procedural law in a criminal matter follows these basic rules:

  1. There must be probable cause to make an arrest
  2. A prosecutor must file charges, specifying what the individual is accuse of going
  3. The defendant must be arraigned on those charges
  4. The defendant must advise the court whether he has an attorney, or is requesting a court-appointed attorney
  5. Bail must be set (or in some cases denied for good cause)
  6. Notice of the court appearance date and time must be sent to the defendant
  7. If a plea bargain cannot be reached, the case is set for trial
  8. If the defendant is convicted at trial, he or she has the right to appeal (for cause)

Substantive law

Substantive law deals with the “substance” of the legal matter – whether it is a criminal charge, or a civil case. Every charge or claim is built on certain elements that must be proven in order to be successful in obtaining a civil remedy, or in convicting a defendant of a criminal charge. In the case of a civil lawsuit, the plaintiff (person bringing the lawsuit) must prove enough elements of the dispute to convince the judge or jury that it is more likely than not that the defendant is liable.

In the case of criminal charges, the prosecution must prove each and every element of the crime, beyond a reasonable doubt. What elements must be proven, according to substantive law, varies depending on the crime, or on the primary issue in question in a civil lawsuit.

For example, substantive law might require the prosecution to prove certain elements in a felony DUI case. Though these vary by jurisdiction, they are likely to include:

  • The defendant operated a motor vehicle on a public roadway;
  • while intoxicated, or under the influence of alcohol or other substance;
  • and having prior convictions for DUI

Source of Procedural Law

Procedural law is set by each individual jurisdiction. Each state has its own procedures, as does the federal court system. In fact, individual counties or other small jurisdictions may have specific procedures that must be adhered to. These often include the manner in which cases must be filed, how notification must be given to the parties, and how the records are handled.

These laws can be found in the “Rules of Civil Procedure,” and “Rules of Court” of the individual jurisdictions. As an example of procedural law, one can view the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (“FRCP”(at the U.S. Court website.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Civil Lawsuit – A lawsuit brought about in court when one person claims to have suffered a loss due to the actions of another person.
  • Criminal Charge – A formal accusation by a prosecuting authority that an individual has committed a crime.
  • Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Plaintiff – A person who brings a legal action against another person or entity, such as in a civil lawsuit, or criminal proceedings.
  • Plea Bargain – An agreement between the prosecutor and defendant in which the defendant agrees to plead guilty to some of the charges, or a lesser charge, in exchange for a reduced sentence, or some other concession by the prosecution.
  • Probable Cause – Facts and circumstances leading to the belief that an accused person has committed a crime. Probable cause does not arise from a suspicion or a “hunch,” but from observable facts and circumstances.