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How is the court system set up in South Dakota?

The court system is like a pyramid. At the bottom of the pyramid are the Magistrate Courts, where misdemeanor criminal cases and small claims court cases are heard. Next are the trial courts, called Circuit Courts. The highest court in the state is the South Dakota Supreme Court. If someone loses a case in the Circuit Court, they can appeal to the South Dakota Supreme Court.

There are two kinds of legal cases: criminal and civil. A criminal case is when the state charges a person with a crime. A civil case is when someone sues an individual or a business. There are many kinds of civil cases. Some examples of a civil problem that could end up in court are: a divorce, a dispute with a landlord, a boundary disagreement with a neighbor, or a problem with a store that sold you a faulty product.

Where do I file my case?

It depends. You must decide which county or state is right for your case. This is called finding the right venue. The case is usually filed where you live or where the action took place, but not always. Where you file your case could affect the outcome especially in divorce and child custody cases. See SDCL ch. 15-5 for statutes on venue of actions.

What court do I go to?

That will depend on the type of case and the amount of money involved. If it is a family law matter like divorce, child support, or custody, your case belongs in Circuit Court. If it is another kind of civil case, you may go to the Magistrate Court if the amount of money involved does not exceed $12,000. If it is more than $12,000, then you need to go to Circuit Court.

What are the basic steps in filing a lawsuit?

  1. File the Summons and Complaint. The person starting the case is called the Petitioner or Plaintiff. That person files a written statement, called the Complaint, telling the court what the case is about. Then they arrange to have the Summons and Complaint delivered to the other side. This is called "service of process."
  2. File the Answer. The person being sued is either called the Defendant or the Respondent. That person files a written response telling their side of the story and delivers a copy to the plaintiff. This is called an Answer.
  3. Prepare the case. Both sides have time to gather evidence to prove their case. Evidence could include documents, photographs or the testimony of witnesses.
  4. The judge holds a hearing. This is when both sides appear before the judge to present their evidence to prove their case.
  5. The judge makes a decision.

Are there forms I can use?

Online forms are available

How much will it cost?

Fees and costs information

For more information about filing a lawsuit, preparing for court, service of process, and other resources please review the Going Solo: Representing Yourself in the South Dakota Courts brochure. You may also review the "Preparing for Court" and "Represent Yourself in Court" pages available on this site.