Plaintiffs and Defendants: Two Sides to a Legal Court Case

Courtroom and gavel

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.

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.

Se also Judge and Juries, or view other legal and law definitions in our Investigation Glossary.


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