Defendant: The Accused in a Legal Court Case

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What is a Defendant?

A defendant is any party who is required to answer the complaint of a plaintiff or pursuer in a civil lawsuit before a court, or any party who has been formally charged or accused of violating a criminal statute.

  • In criminal law, a defendant is anyone tried under the court of law as the person(s) who committed the crime
  • A defendant in a civil action usually makes their first court appearance voluntarily in response to a summons, whereas a defendant in a criminal case is often taken into custody by police and brought before a court, pursuant to an arrest warrant.

The actions of a defendant, and its lawyer counsel, is known as the defense. Historically, a defendant in a civil action could also be taken into custody pursuant to a “writ of capias ad respondendum” and forced to post bail before being released from custody. However, a modern day defendant in a civil action is usually able to avoid most (if not all) court appearances if represented by a lawyer.

A defendant in a criminal case (particularly a felony or indictment) is usually obliged to post bail before being released from custody and must be present at every stage thereafter of the proceedings.  The defendant may have their lawyer appear instead.

For more legal definitions, visit our Glossary of Legal and Investigation Terms.

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