Definition of summary judgment
summary judgment (plural summary judgments)
- (law) The determination by a court that no factual issues are in dispute, and that the legal issues require the case to be decided in favor of one party or the other.
In law, a summary judgment is a judgment entered by a court for one party and against another party summarily, i.e., without a full trial. Such a judgment may be issued on the merits of an entire case, or on discrete issues in that case.
In common law systems, questions about what the law actually is in a particular case are decided by judges; in rare cases jury nullification of the law may act to contravene or complement the instructions or orders of the judge, or other officers of the court. A factfinder has to decide what the facts are and apply the law. In traditional common law the factfinder was a jury, but in many jurisdictions the judge now acts as the factfinder as well. It is the factfinder who decides "what really happened," and it is the judge who applies the law to the facts as determined by the factfinder, whether directly or by giving instructions to the jury.
Absent an award of summary judgment (or some type of pretrial dismissal), a lawsuit will ordinarily proceed to trial, which is an opportunity for litigants to present evidence in an attempt to persuade the factfinder that they are saying "what really happened," and that, under the applicable law, they should prevail.
The necessary steps before a case can get to trial include disclosing documents to the opponent by discovery, showing the other side the evidence, often in the form of witness statements. This process is lengthy, and can be difficult and costly.
A party moving (applying) for summary judgment is attempting to avoid the time and expense of a trial when the outcome is obvious. A party may also move for summary judgement in order to eliminate the risk of losing at trial, and possibly avoid having to go through discovery, by demonstrating to the judge, via sworn statements and documentary evidence, that there are no material issues of fact remaining to be tried. If there's nothing for the jury to decide, then the moving party asks rhetorically, why have a trial? The moving party will also attempt to persuade the court that the undisputed material facts require judgment to be entered in its favor. In many jurisdictions, a party moving for summary judgment takes the risk that, although the judge may agree there are no material issues of fact remaining for trial, the judge may also find that it is the non-moving party that is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.
England and Wales
In England and Wales, Part 24 of the Civil Procedure Rules governs the award of summary judgment. Summary judgment is available in all claims against both the defendant and claimant with the following exceptions.
- There may be no summary judgment in possession proceedings against a mortgagor or a person holding over after the end of his tenancy whose occupancy is protected within the meaning of the Rent Act 1977 or the Housing Act 1988.
- There may be no summary judgment against a defendant in admiralty proceedings in rem.
In American legal practice summary judgment can be awarded by the court before trial, effectively holding that no trial will be necessary. Issuance of summary judgment can be based only upon the court's finding that:
- there are no disputes of "material" fact requiring a trial to resolve, and
- in applying the law to the undisputed facts, one party is clearly entitled to judgment.
A party seeking summary judgment (or making any other motion) is called the "moving party". A "material fact" is one which, depending upon what the factfinder believes "really happened," could lead to judgment in favor of one party, rather than the other.
At present, summary judgment in the United States is available only in civil cases. There is no mechanism for parties in a criminal case to obtain a pretrial judgment of conviction or acquittal, in part because of a criminal defendant's constitutional right to a jury trial. Some federal and state-court judges publish general guidelines and sample summary-judgment forms.
A plaintiff may seek summary judgment on any cause of action, and similarly, a defendant may seek summary judgment in its favor on any affirmative defense or for the lack of evidence supporting a plaintiff's claims. But in either case, the moving party must produce evidence in support of each and every essential element of the claim or defense (as it would have to do at trial).
To be successful, a summary-judgment motion must be drafted as a written preview of a party's entire case-in-chief (that it would put before the finder of fact at trial) because all parts of an entire claim or defense are at issue.
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