A formal, written statement asking the court to grant relief, or to decide a dispute, is referred to as a “pleading.” The written complaint filed by a plaintiff to initiate a civil lawsuit, or filed by a prosecutor to initiate criminal proceedings, as well as the written answer filed by a civil defendant are generally the first pleadings in any court action. Additional documents may be filed with the court later, up until, and throughout the trial phase. To explore this concept, consider the following pleading definition.

Definition of Pleading


  1. A formal written statement of a party’s claims defense in a court action.
  2. The act of supporting or furthering a cause in a court of law.


1250-1300   Middle English pledynge

Purpose of the System of Pleading

In the earliest courts of England, the parties to a dispute simply presented themselves to the local judge, who may have been anything from an appointed jurist to the lord of an estate, to explain the issue. As the system moved on to require people to bring their issues to common-law courts established by the King, a system of categorizing disputes became necessary.

The courts began requiring written pleadings to be submitted detailing each party’s position in the case. This placed the judicial system out of reach of the common man, who often lacked the ability to read and write, and who could not afford to hire a representative. As time went by, the system became more rigid, enacting requirements that were more and more difficult to meet.

The modern court system uses a system of written pleadings to funnel cases into the right courts, as well as to:

  • Give notice of a legal action, or defense
  • Spell out the facts of the case
  • Identify the issues that need to be resolved

Some systems rely primarily on the initial pleadings to classify a case, while others use pleadings as well as other procedures, such as discovery and pretrial conferences, for such classification. Each jurisdiction relies on its Code of Civil Procedures or Rules of Civil Procedures to govern the way each case progresses.

Pleadings in a Civil Lawsuit

The system of pleadings requires certain documents to be filed at the start of any civil lawsuit, and while the number of pleadings that may be used is vast, they are filed in an orderly manner. Each jurisdiction’s rules of civil procedure clearly lay out which documents are necessary, when they are to be filed, when answers must be submitted by the opposing party, and even how the documents should be formatted. The most commonly used pleadings in a civil lawsuit include:


The filing of a complaint marks the beginning of a lawsuit. In the complaint, the person filing the lawsuit (the “plaintiff”) outlines his version of the facts of the dispute, states the legal basis of the lawsuit, and tells the court what relief he is seeking.


A summons is a formal written notice to the person being sued (the “defendant”) that a lawsuit has been filed. Most jurisdictions require that a summons accompany the civil complaint, as it lists the reason for the lawsuit, the time limit the defendant has to file a response, and the time, date, and location of the first court appearance.


The defendant’s formal written response to the lawsuit is referred to as an “answer.” In it, the defendant addresses each issue in the complaint, either admitting or denying the facts, and states his version of the facts of the dispute. Once a defendant has been served with a complaint, he has a specified period of time in which to file an answer.


In a civil lawsuit it is not uncommon for the defendant to feel that he is the injured party, rather than the plaintiff. While he is still required to file an answer to the complaint within the specified time limit, he may also file a counterclaim describing why the plaintiff was at fault, what damages he has suffered, and what damages he is seeking.

For example, Sharon is backing out of a parking stall when she hits another vehicle owned by Bob. Bob files a lawsuit seeking reimbursement for the cost of repairing his car. Sharon, who is adamant that Bob cut through another row of cars before speeding up the row behind her, feels the accident was his fault. Sharon may file a counterclaim to Bob’s lawsuit, explaining why she had the right-of-way, and what damages she would like the court to award her.

Other Official Documents

In addition to pleadings, which state the basis for the lawsuit, other types of documents are used throughout the court proceeding. These documents fall into two categories: (1) motions, which ask the court to make an order or ruling on a matter within the bigger picture of the lawsuit itself; and (2) discovery, which is used in gathering facts and evidence in the case.


There are several types of discovery documents used by both sides to a dispute to gather evidence. These documents are not filed with the court, but served on the opposing party. Strict timelines govern when discovery may be served and answered. The most commonly used discovery documents include:

  • Deposition – Testimony made under oath outside of the court for the purpose of establishing certain facts. The testimony made in a deposition may be used later in court.
  • Interrogatories – A set of written questions designed to gain information from the opposing party.
  • Request for Production of Documents – A written demand for the opposing party to provide copies of specific relevant documents.
  • Inspection Demand – A written request to be allowed to inspect a specific relevant item or place.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Civil Lawsuit – A lawsuit brought about in court when one person claims to have suffered a loss due to the actions of another person.
  • Damages – A monetary award in compensation for a financial loss, loss of or damage to personal or real property, or an injury.