If you file a lawsuit on your own, or if you are responding to a lawsuit on your own, you will need to collect evidence to prove your case or attack your opponent’s case. The legal term for collecting evidence is “discovery.” It often plays a critical role in the outcome of the case, since reviewing documents or information in the other side’s control can alter each party’s understanding of their position. Discovery usually involves conducting depositions and completing various written statements rather than going to court. If a dispute arises over the scope of discovery, a judge can determine whether the information needs to be disclosed.
You can read more here about the most common discovery tools in civil lawsuits. These are depositions, requests for production, requests for admissions, and interrogatories. Each of them takes its own form and serves its own purpose.
The Scope of Discovery
Generally, any information that is relevant to the litigation must be disclosed. This can extend well beyond the basic facts of the case and the documents related to it. A party might use discovery to find out information about people who might be called as witnesses or to inspect tangible items related to the case. You can even send discovery requests to people or entities that are not directly participating in the litigation.
One of the main purposes of gathering evidence is to prepare for the statements that the opponent or a witness may make at trial. You can ask about things that someone said or did at a certain time and place, and you can ask for records related to the subject matter of the lawsuit. If you are suing a business, such as a former employer or a manufacturer of a defective product, you might request information about the operations of the business. If the opponent will be using an expert witness, you might want to know about their background and qualifications.
Discovery and Your Privacy Rights
The extremely broad scope of discovery unfortunately creates a potential for abuse. Sometimes an unscrupulous party or attorney will try to use discovery tools to harass an opponent and invade their privacy. If you believe that a request is harassing or unduly intrusive, you may be able to object based on certain privileges or privacy rights. For example, the law protects confidential conversations between spouses, between an attorney and a client, between a doctor and a patient, and sometimes between a religious figure and a person who is seeking spiritual guidance from them.
In addition to these traditional protections, modern notions of privacy have developed to further limit the scope of discovery. Privacy rights have not evolved into specific rules, and different states have crafted different definitions of them. If the opposing party is asking you to disclose information that you would not disclose to people outside family or close friends, and it does not seem to be directly related to the case, you should explore whether your right to privacy shields it from disclosure. For example, questions about your sexuality or sexual activity, your physical and mental health, your religious practices, and your relationships with your family members may violate your right to privacy. If any of these areas is at issue in the lawsuit, though, a court may order you to disclose this information.
Third parties to lawsuits have greater privacy protections than litigants. If someone has no stake in the dispute, a court may find it unreasonable to force them to disclose personal information. Third parties may include family members, friends, and witnesses.
Preventing Public Disclosure
If you do need to disclose certain private information, you should be aware that the court can issue a protective order to keep the information out of the public record. This also would prevent the opposing party from disclosing the information to anyone else. A court might issue this type of order if a party needs to reveal their medical records, financial records, or other personal matters that might be embarrassing if known to the public.