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Overview of the Case Filing Process

Starting a New Case

Filing the Case:

To start a case in federal court, a party must file a complaint or a petition.  For more information about what is to be included in a complaint or petition and its formatting, see Section II of the Guide for Unrepresented Parties.

The following documents must accompany the complaint (see US Courts Forms or Pro Se Forms):
•    Civil Cover Sheet (JS-44)
•    Proposed Summons(es) (AO 440)
•    Filing fee OR an Application to Proceed In Forma Pauperis
A pro se litigant can choose to file the opening documents, called “initial pleadings,” in their case in any of three ways: 
1.    In Person: Documents may be delivered in person to the Clerk of Court's office in Billings, Butte, Great Falls, or Missoula. The Helena office does not accept filings over the counter. 
2.    By Mail: Documents may be mailed to the Clerk of Court’s office in the Billings, Butte, Great Falls, Helena, or Missoula. 
3.    Email: Initial pleadings (case filings and supporting documents) may be emailed to This includes new complaints and motions to proceed in forma pauperis). NOTE - ANY DOCUMENT SENT TO THIS EMAIL OTHER THAN INITIAL PLEADINGS WILL NOT BE FILED. 

Case Filing Fee:

There is a filing fee of to begin a new civil case, see our Fee Schedule for the most current fees. You have two options: (1) paying the filing fee in full, or (2) asking the Court to waive the filing fee by proceeding “in forma pauperis” or “IFP.” IFP is for lower-income people who would not be able to afford the filing fee. This option requires you to file a motion to proceed in forma pauperis. 


Plaintiffs must give the other parties to their lawsuit a copy of every document that they file with the Court. This is referred to as "serving" or "service on" the other parties. For more information about serving a summons and complaint, see Section IV of the Guide for Unrepresented Parties and Fed.R.Civ.P 4.

Forms for Service (see US Courts Forms)

•    Summons in a Civil Action (AO 440)
•    Notice of Lawsuit and Request to Waive Service of a Summons (AO398)  
•    Waiver of the Service of Summons (AO 399)
•    U.S. Marshals Service Form (USM 285)

Prisoner Pro Se Litigants:

Self-represented prisoners may elect to use one of the following forms to initiate their case in federal court (see US Courts Forms or Pro Se Forms):
•    Motion to Vacate, Set Aside, or Correct a Sentence By a Person in Federal Custody Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. 2255  (AO 243)
•    Petition for a Writ of Habeas Corpus Pursuant to 28. U.S.C. 2254  (challenges to a state-court criminal judgment) (AO 241)
•    Petition for a Writ of Habeas Corpus Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. 2241  (challenges to the execution of a federal sentence) (AO 242)
•    Prisoner Civil Rights Complaint

In addition, actions filed by prisoners are generally subject to review by a judge to determine if the action meets the standards to proceed or requires dismissal. If you are a state prisoner filing a civil rights case that survives screening, the Court will typically seek a waiver of service on your behalf.