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The following information is provided as a general overview of Italian civil and criminal laws and procedures, which can differ greatly from those in the U.S.  It is not intended to substitute advice from a lawyer licensed to practice in Italy. For definitive legal guidance and advice, you should consult a lawyer.

Italian Civil Procedures

The Italian civil judiciary system is composed of three levels of courts.  At the first level, there are 846 Justices of the Peace with limited jurisdiction (e.g. small car accidents, condominium disputes and disputes with limited sums at stake), and 386 tribunals with general jurisdiction.  At the second level, there are 29 courts of appeal. The final level is the Italian Supreme Court (Corte di Cassazione).

Civil cases are legal disputes between private individuals.  Time limits for bringing court actions vary depending on the case.  American citizens should consult an attorney licensed to practice in Italy to clarify time limits for a specific legal action.

Under the Italian legal system, all parties in a lawsuit must be represented by an attorney licensed to practice in Italy.  Parties may proceed unrepresented only in a limited number of cases (e.g. some cases heard by Justices of the Peace, labor disputes with a low value at stake.)  A person wishing to be represented by an attorney in a lawsuit must confer to him/her  a special power of attorney. The Italian language must be used throughout the proceedings.

A standard fee is usually paid in advance of any proceedings.  The sum varies according to the type of proceeding to be initiated, amounts at stake and the level of court involved.

Depending on the nature of the dispute, there are two different ways to initiate a civil lawsuit. Generally, a lawsuit begins when a party (called the “plaintiff”) serves a complaint (atto di citazione) upon the opposing party (called the “defendant”) summoning the latter to appear before the competent court at a certain day and time.  The plaintiff must follow a set of specific rules when determining the date of the first hearing.   Subsequent hearings will then be arranged by the judge appointed to the lawsuit.  Once the complaint is served upon the defendant, the plaintiff must file the original complaint, along with the accompanying documents with the competent court.

Another way to initiate a lawsuit is to file a complaint (ricorso) directly with the competent court.  This, for instance, is the procedure used for labor disputes.  The main difference with the above procedure is that here it is up to the court who receives the complaint to set the date of the first hearing.  This is done by the court by decree.  Once the first hearing date has been scheduled, it is the plaintiff’s duty to serve the defendant with the complaint and the court’s decree setting the hearing date.

In either procedure, once the complaint has been filed with the court, the court’s clerk assigns a docket number to the case and assembles the court documentation package, to which the documents of all sides involved will be appended.  Moreover, once the defendant is served with the complaint, s/he is notified of the nature of the claims made by the plaintiff and is informed that s/he has a specific time limit to file a reply and contest the allegations made by the plaintiff.

A series of hearings will then take place before the judge at which time the parties present their evidence to the judge.  At the end of the debate phase, the court renders a judgment.  A first-level judgment can be appealed before a court of appeals and that judgment can be appealed before the Supreme Court.

The length of civil proceedings in Italy varies depending on the issues at stake, the nature of the evidence and the legal motions filed by all parties.  The average length of proceedings before Justices of the Peace is approximately one to two years.  The average length of proceedings before tribunals is approximately three years whereas the average length of proceedings before courts of appeals is approximately two years.  Proceedings before the Supreme Court generally last no more than one year.

Italian Criminal Procedures

Criminal procedures begin when the public prosecutor’s office is notified of a crime (notizia di reato) by the Italian Judicial Police (Polizia Giudiziaria) or by any citizen.  When the public prosecutor is notified of a crime, s/he is obliged to start the preliminary investigations.

The public prosecutor’s office has a maximum of six months to a year (depending on the nature of the crime) to carry out an investigation on a suspect.  If an investigation develops into a very complex case (e.g. if the investigation has to be carried out abroad or if the case cannot be concluded in the time allowed) the term for completing the investigation may be extended to between 18 months and 2 years.  Requests to extend the term for completing the investigation must be approved by the judge. Timing in the Italian legal system is very different from the American system.  Postponements and delays in the investigations are very frequent making it often impossible to predict the timing necessary for the completion of investigations. 

After the investigation is completed, the procedure may have various outcomes, as described below.

If the prosecutor determines there is not enough evidence to support the charge(s), s/he can ask the judge in charge of the case at this stage (Giudice delle Indagini Preliminari) to dismiss the case.  The public prosecutor must inform the crime victim of this intention to apply for dismissal of the case, if the crime victim requests to be informed.  The victim may then file an opposing brief with the judge indicating why further investigations should be performed.  If the judge deems the victim's brief in favor of prosecution well-founded, the judge orders the public prosecutor to carry out further investigations or to file formal criminal charges against the suspect.  If the victim fails to indicate why further investigations should be performed or the judge deems there is not enough evidence to support the charge(s), the case is definitively closed.

If the prosecutor determines there is sufficient evidence to support the charge(s), s/he must notify the suspect, the defense counsel and the crime victim that the investigation is closed and asks the judge (Giudice dell’Udienza Preliminare) to send the case to trial specifying the formal charges against the accused (richiesta di rinvio a giudizio).  The judge then sets a date for a preliminary hearing (udienza preliminare) in which the accused can defend her/himself. At the hearing, the judge can decide to close the case without proceeding to a trial or order the case go to trial (rinvio a giudizio).  If the charges are not dropped, the trial begins.  Preliminary issues are verified and then the debate begins.

It is advisable for a victim to appear personally at the first hearing. The court may decide to refund travel expenses for a victim in order to guarantee her/his presence at a particular hearing but only if special circumstances warrant this.

At the end of the debate, the court issues a verdict.  The verdict can be appealed before the Court of Appeals and then before the Supreme Court if certain criteria exist.

The length of criminal proceedings in Italy varies depending on the type of crime, the nature of the evidence and the legal motions filed by all parties.  The average length of proceedings before courts of appeals is approximately two years. The average length of proceedings before the Supreme Court is approximately one year.

For information on victims of crime, please see Emergency-crime

For information on arrests, please see the Arrest of a U.S. Citizen webpage on this website, and the Arrest or Detention of a U.S. Citizen Abroad webpage on the State Department website.