Plaintiffs and Defendants: Two Sides to a Legal Court Case

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Courtroom and gavel
Learn legal terms and definitions used in the investigation field.

Plaintiffs and Defendants are the two major players in a legal case or lawsuit. Following is a description of each.

The Plaintiff

A plaintiff, also known as a claimant or complainant, is the legal term used in some jurisdictions for the party who initiates a lawsuit before a court. By doing so, the plaintiff seeks a legal remedy, and if successful, the court will issue judgment in favor of the plaintiff and make the appropriate court order (e.g., an order for damages). In some jurisdictions the commencement of a lawsuit is done by filing a summons, claim form and/or a complaint. These documents are known as pleadings, that set forth the alleged wrongs committed by the defendant or defendants with a demand for relief. In other jurisdictions, the action is commenced by service of legal process (process service) by delivery of these documents on the defendant by a process server. The documents are only filed with the court subsequently with an affidavit from the process server that they had been given to the defendant according to the rules of civil procedure.

The 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.

Judge

A judge is a person, either a man or a woman, who presides over a court of law. Most judges preside alone, but sometimes preside as part of a panel of judges or other legal professionals.  A judge typically presides over a physical court room facility, but sometimes conducts court via two-way video in cases where safety is a concern or to expedite the judicial process. The powers, functions, method of appointment, discipline, and training of judges vary widely across different jurisdictions. Check local laws and statutes if doing research for a case.

The judge hears all the witnesses and any other evidence presented by both of the parties of the legal case, commonly referred to as the Plaintiff and Defendant.

The judge assesses the credibility of the parties involved in the case, and then issues an official ruling or decision based on his or her interpretation of the law and his or her own personal judgment.

In some jurisdictions, powers may be shared with a jury, although this practice is starting to be phased out in some regions.

In many states throughout the United States, a judge is addressed verbally as “Your Honor” or “Judge” when presiding over the court. “Judge” may be more commonly used by attorneys and staff, while either may be commonly used by the plaintiff or defendant in the court room. In some situations, you may hear the term “Justice of the Peace” or “magistrate”.

Private detectives and police officers may have to stand before a judge when involved in legal proceedings.

Juries: Determining Guilt or Innocence in a Legal Court Case

A jury, which is sometimes referred to as a court jury, is a sworn body of people convened to render an impartial verdict (which is basically the finding of fact on a legal-related question) officially submitted to them by a court, or to set a penalty or judgment in a court case.

The word jury is derived from the French word “jure”, which means “sworn”.  They are found in both criminal cases and civil lawsuits to ascertain the guilt or innocence in a crime. The verdict, or decision, in any particular court case may be guilty or not guilty.

Juries are an essential part of the legal process. In today’s world, the judges act as triers of law while the juries act as a triers of fact. The bench trial is the trial without the jury.

Potential jurors are selected by legal counsel (lawyers and attorneys) from what is known as a jury pool. The pool is created from citizens who are chosen at random in the local jurisdiction.

Those chosen, listen and observe as the court case that is presented by the legal counsel of the plaintiff and the defendant. After both cases are presented, the members retire to a location outside of the court room to discuss the facts and determine a verdict. The majority opinion of the group determines the ultimate verdict in the court case.

Other Facts

  • The size varies depending on the type of court case
  • If the group is unable to reach a verdict, it is known as a hung jury
  • A bench trial is a trial without a jury
  • Juries are usually composed of jurors (also known as jurymen)

Different Types

  • Petit Jury– This type of group is used in either criminal cases or civil cases.
  • Grand Jury– This type is used in federal court cases. Grand juries review the evidence presented by the prosecutor and issue indictments if warranted. Grand juries normally consist of 12 jurors.
  • Coroner’s Jury– This type is formed to assist the coroner in detecting the reason(s) for a person’s death. A coroner is a public official that is elected by the local government to determine the reasons  and circumstances leading to the death of the person in suspicious cases. The coroner’s jury is formed to increase the confidence of the people for the investigation conducted by the coroner.

What Private Investigators Need to Know

Private investigators may find themselves working for either side in a court case. Detectives may serve as an expert witness, a subject matter expert, or provide testimony regarding information, facts or details they dug up during their investigative efforts. Private eyes should be generally familiar with court proceedings to help clients through challenging times.

View other legal and law definitions in our Investigation Glossary.

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