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What is Discovery Law?

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Discovery law relates to the laws governing formal legal requests from the opposing party in a lawsuit or criminal case. When you are going to court, in the majority of cases, you have the right to some of the evidence that is available only to the other side. You need this in order to be able to prepare your case; otherwise, no one would ever be able to sue anyone if they didn't have access to the relevant information they needed to prove the other side did something wrong. Discovery law differs slightly in civil and criminal cases.

Discovery Law in Criminal Cases

Discovery law in criminal cases is a bit more one-sided then in civil cases. A defendant usually has to notify the prosecution of certain defenses, such as an insanity defense, prior to the trial. The defendant also has to give the prosecutor a list of witnesses they plan to call and a list of “exhibits” or evidence they plan to introduce. However, due to the 5th Amendments protection against self-incrimination, a defendant is not required by law to turn over material that would incriminate them.

The prosecution, on the other hand, is legally required to give the defendant any evidence that they have which might exonerate a defendant. The prosecution is also required to provide information about witnesses they plan to call and other evidence they plan to use against a defendant to prove his guilt. The prosecution also has to make available any statements the defendant made that they are planning to use against the defendant, as well as any information about sentencing prospects for the defendant.

Discovery in Civil Cases

Discovery in civil cases is broader then in criminal cases, and both side are required to turn over documents and evidence they plan to use in a trial. Each party in the lawsuit is required to turn over this information, even without a formal request. Each side is also given the legal right to depose the witnesses the other party plans to use. This means they get to formally question the witnesses under oath in legal proceedings. They can also send question and answer sheets, called interrogatories to witnesses that they don't want to take the time to depose. Finally, each side can formally request certain documents from the other.

Limitations

Despite the preference for full disclosure, discovery law shields people from abusive discovery requests. For example, if you are suing a company for creating a faulty product, you are entitled to ask for documents related to the creation of that product. You may not be entitled to ask for every document relating to the creation of every product the company ever made, as such a request would be burdensome and expensive for the company to comply with.

Certain other limitations also exist in discovery law. You do not have to turn over information that contains attorney work product. For example, your attorney would not have to turn over his notes on the case, even if the other side requested them. If a company does an internal investigation, not in anticipation of litigation but just to ensure that their company is complying with the law, they may not have to turn that over either. This limit is in place to encourage companies to maintain internal checks-and-balances without fear that those internal investigations will later come back to haunt them in case of litigation.

Unlike criminal law, you are required to turn over information in discovery that could potentially lead to you losing the case. It is illegal to destroy documents that have been requested as part of a legitimate discovery request in a lawsuit.

Purpose of Discovery Law

Discovery laws in civil cases are designed to protect both parties equally. Without discovery laws, civil litigation would be very difficult, as often the person who is responsible for the wrongdoing has the necessary information to prove the wrongdoing. Furthermore, a person being sued is also entitled to discover information, such as evidence of actual damages a plaintiff incurred. Thus, discovery law protects both sides and makes the American system of civil litigation possible.

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