Rules of Court

The court system in the U.S. is governed by sets of rules that specify how procedures in each court are processed and handled. Federal courts use the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, each state has specific rules for state courts, and local county, district, and municipal courts, adopt “local rules of court,” which are often based on the state’s rules. The Local Rules in each jurisdiction govern how documents are filed with the court, including the time allowed for various documents to be filed, the formatting required, and the number of copies required to be filed with the original documents. To explore this concept, consider the following rules of court definition.

Definition of Rules of Court


  1. A set of court procedures and regulations that are required to be followed by all litigants and attorneys in any court matter.


1934     Federal Rules Enabling Act adopted by Congress

History of Rules of Court

The early U.S. judicial system was modeled after English common law, with a matters being heard by federal courts, where rules were set by each district individually. Generally, these rules were much less stringent in the Western United States than in the Eastern United States, which created a great deal of confusion. In an effort to minimize confusion and complexity in federal civil procedure, the U.S. Supreme Court enacted the Federal Rules Enabling Act of 1934, which gave power to the U.S. Supreme Court to make new rules and procedures for all federal courts.

An advisory committee was then appointed to make recommendations to the Supreme Court, which were considered, and if accepted, sent to Congress for final approval. The new set of rules, called the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (“FRCP”), simplified such issues as discovery procedures, pleading requirements, and the use of pretrial conferences to define issues to be tried. Other issues addressed included the procedures for joining multiple parties and claims to a federal lawsuit, and the merging of legal and equitable claims to be held to the same set of rules.

As the U.S. judicial system grew in response to the needs of a denser population, individual state and local courts were established. Out of a need to maintain consistency and unity, each state created their own court rules to govern procedure, from filing to trying legal matters. These state rules of court were often closely modeled on the FRCP. As local judicial systems broke down into county, district, and municipal courts, new local rules of court were established by each.

Court Rules or Statutory Law

Some states adopt rules of court that are disseminated by their state supreme court or state bar association. These states have taken the position that their citizens should be protected by having the right to have civil procedure managed directly by elected law makers, rather than allowing judges, who do not answer directly to the people, and are either appointed or elected infrequently. These states are concerned that the judges who might be tasked with frequent court rule updates are too bogged down in their regular caseloads to draft or amend the rules.

Other states take the position that court procedure should be a judicial function, keeping these decisions within the branch to which they directly apply. In addition to their desire to maintain the rule of separation of powers, these states take into consideration that their legislatures are often gridlocked with other matters, making it impossible for them to make the frequent amendments to civil procedure that are necessary to keep the court system running smoothly.

Whether created and maintained by law or judicial decision, most states’ rules of court adopt the most innovative sections of the FRCP. In doing this, the states have been able to adopt their own procedures, bypassing what they feel does not work well in the federal rules, while utilizing sections that do. This has eliminated the need for the states to undertake a complete reform of their own court rules systems.

Rules of Civil Procedure vs. Criminal Procedure

Court rules and procedures differ greatly between civil and criminal matters. The reason for this lies in the end objective of the two types of cases. The criminal law system is designed to protect the rights of a person accused of a crime. Because the result of a criminal defendant being found guilty of a crime may be incarceration, the accused is never required to engage in discovery, to provide evidence or testimony against himself. In addition, there are a number of rules governing how the prosecutor functions in a criminal matter.

The civil law system is designed to make an aggrieved party “whole” for whatever harm or damages have been caused by the other party. Therefore, civil rules of court are designed to give all involved parties a common set of rules to adhere to. Because the result of losing a civil matter is monetary, and there is no chance of being imprisoned, there is no need to warn parties not to make statements that would be self-incriminating.

One of the greatest differences between civil and criminal rules of procedure is discovery, in which the parties to a civil matter are required to share information and documentation related to the case. This is regulated by the rules of court in the jurisdiction in which the matter is being heard. Local rules of court also specifically state how much time each party has to file papers and responses, which forms are to be used, and how typed documents are to be formatted, including type of paper, margins, line spacing, and font. Local rules also specify what fees are charged for filing each type of civil matter with the court. In each jurisdiction, this information can be found on the court’s website, or by going in person to the court clerk’s office.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Civil Law – The body of law dealing with private matters between individuals and corporations and other entities.
  • Criminal Law – The body of law dealing with criminal offenses and their punishment.
  • Discovery – The pre-trial efforts of each party to obtain information and evidence.
  • Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.