In the civil court system, a case begins with the plaintiff filing a lawsuit against the defendant(s), setting forth the various claims under which the plaintiff seeks relief. As the case progresses, each side is afforded an opportunity to discover information about the strengths and weaknesses of the other’s case and, if desired, take depositions of the parties and the witnesses. It is usually a fairly straightforward process designed to encourage settlement whenever possible, although issues do occasionally arise.
In criminal court, however, the process of discovering the case of one’s opponent is considerably more difficult. To begin with, the Fifth Amendment protects the defendant from self-incrimination, so the Commonwealth’s discovery of the defendant’s case is very limited. Generally speaking, the defendant’s ability to discover the evidence, eyewitness statements, and other aspects of the Commonwealth’s case is much greater, but there can still be limitations.