Discovery Definition and Legal Meaning

On this page, you'll find the legal definition and meaning of Discovery, written in plain English, along with examples of how it is used.

What is Discovery?

n. The efforts to obtain information before a trial by a party to a lawsuit and his/her/its attorneys by demands for production of documents, depositions of parties and potential witnesses, written interrogatories, written requests for admissions of fact, examination of the scene, and petitions and motions employed to enforce discovery rights. The right to discovery affords all parties with the opportunity to go to trial with as much knowledge as possible and not hold secrets from the other. During a suit, most of the fight between the two sides occurs during the discovery period.

History and Definition of Discovery

Discovery is an essential phase of the trial process, where parties to a lawsuit gather all necessary information to strengthen their side of the case. It is the phase where each party can obtain relevant evidence from the other, examine paperwork and public records, have access to the other side's witnesses, and request admissions of fact from the other.

Historically, discovery was not part of the common law trial system, which allowed each side to present evidence in court as it saw fit. However, the modern legal system recognizes that it is necessary to have extensive fact-finding before a trial to save court time, conserve the resources of the parties and their lawyers, facilitate settlement, and perhaps determine the outcome of the case. Thus, discovery has a long and evolving history, from its origins in civil law to its modern usage in common law litigation.

Examples of Discovery

  1. John and Elizabeth are going through a divorce. During the discovery process, John can request Elizabeth's financial documents to plan his argument during the trial.
  2. In a personal injury case, the defendant might ask for all of the plaintiff's medical reports, including the ambulance reports and hospital stay information, to defend the claim.
  3. In a criminal trial, the prosecutor might use the discovery process to gather evidence for the prosecution and strengthen their case against the defendant.

Legal Terms Similar to Discovery

  1. Disclosure: Similar to discovery in common law jurisdictions, parties in civil law jurisdictions have a right to access all information about a case under the concept of "disclosure."
  2. Interrogatories: A set of written questions that a party to a lawsuit asks the other.
  3. Depositions: A legal proceeding where a person is asked questions under oath by the opposing party's attorney.